Conquering Query Letter Anxiety

BY HANNAH GUY • May 27, 2019

Conquering Query Letter Anxiety

“Brevity is the sister of talent.” ―Anton Chekhov


While a writer can construct an entire world and then create a book—or even a series—around it, the prospect of crafting a query to a publisher or agent can often seem daunting. “I’d rather write another book than write a query or book description,” a new author once admitted to me. “It’s so much easier.”

For many authors, creative writing is infinitely preferable to promotional writing. Self-promotion may be uncomfortable, but if you want to sell your book, that’s exactly what you must do. The query letter is the “elevator pitch” for your book. In one page (and never more than one page), you must not only deliver a snappy, compelling short description but also sell the agent or editor on you. Like the cover of your book for readers, a good query letter is your best chance to grab an editor’s or agent’s attention and convince them to request your manuscript.

Is that a lot of pressure to rest on one letter? Yes. But it’s also easier to write than you think, because the guidelines and expectations are very clear and the letter itself follows a general formula.

Approaching Your Query

As you begin work on your query, remember that professionalism—plus research and polished formatting—goes a long way. We’ve covered the mistakes that authors can make when looking for an agent, and many of those “little errors” can add up here as well. Make sure you:

1. Check the submission guidelines. Ensure that you are following the editor’s or agent’s guidelines to the letter. Make special note of their policy on attachments (when in doubt, don’t send them), information they may wish to see, and what kind of books that they are looking for. Some publishers and agencies prefer email queries; others prefer mailed submissions. Almost everyone has a different set of requirements, so it is important to do your research and then follow the instructions. You may find it helpful to create a spreadsheet that tracks each agent or editor you’re querying, their requirements, the date you contact them, and any response you receive.

2. Address the agent or editor by name. Most agents and editors tend to dismiss queries that are not personalized. Addressing an agent or editor by name and mentioning their agency or publishing house shows you’ve done your research and are interested in working with them specifically.

3.Treat your letter as business correspondence. Your query letter will be judged not only on its content but also on its presentation. From “Dear [Name]” through each subsequent paragraph, your query should be formal and polished. Use a commonly accepted font (you can never go wrong with 12-point Times New Roman), left-align your paragraphs, and don’t forget to include your contact information at the bottom below your signature. Take your time and don’t send out your letter until you’re confident it’s your very best work and it’s completely error free. You also want to avoid gimmicks; let your writing speak for itself. Keep your book description in third person, and resist the urge to get creative with your formatting. No part of your letter should be bolded or in all caps, use colored font, or contain emojis.

4. Keep it simple. Seriously. You have one page to accomplish your goal. Your paragraphs should be short and to the point, focusing on only the necessary information. Resist the urge to get wordy. A good approach is to draft out all your paragraphs, then go back and eliminate unnecessary words or sentences and any digressions, and continue editing until your letter is tight and clean. If you have a tendency to be overzealous in your use of adjectives and adverbs, or you ramble on at length and without purpose, the agent will notice it—and will assume your book is similarly written.

Introducing Your Book

While this can be the most intimidating part of the letter, it’s also your chance to shine. After all, who knows more about your book than you do?

1. Lead with a personal connection or referral if you have one. A mutual author friend or acquaintance may have suggested you contact this agent or editor. If that individual has encouraged you, mention them. Like an introduction from a trusted friend, it may increase the level of interest in you and your book. Similarly, if you saw this agent or editor speak or critique at a conference (and especially if you spoke with them there), that’s another great way to begin your letter. (Dear Suzy Kirkus, After hearing your presentation on what makes a compelling thriller heroine at CrimeCon last month, I thought you might be the perfect agent to represent my romantic suspense novel…)

2. Or lead with why you want to work with them. If you don’t have a personal connection, start your letter by mentioning why you think this agent or publisher is a particularly good fit for your book. Think beyond just “I really liked X book you published/represented,” or “You worked on a book that made a lot of money.” Always be complimentary and kind.

3. Set the hook. Comprising only a sentence or two, this introduction to the book should be punchy and well written. Also, it should clearly identify your main characters, their conflict, and the appeal of the book in a catchy way. Try to match the tone of your story. For example, “High school student Bella has just met the boy of her dreams. But can she overlook the fact that Edward sparkles in the sunlight … and has a thirst for blood?”

4. Identify the book’s genre. After the hook, the agent or editor needs to know who you’re writing for, what kind of book this is, and the length of the manuscript. Sure, you know your book is fiction, but what kind of fiction? Genres have subcategories, and demonstrating a familiarity with them—and thus the concepts of readership and marketability—can help an agent or editor decide if your book is right for them.

For FICTION: Identify the genre of fiction as well as the subgenre. For example, if you’re writing a romance, you should clarify whether it’s a Regency or other historical, romantic suspense, “sweet” (or “clean”) romance, and so on.
For NONFICTION: Not only does nonfiction have many subgenres, it can cover any subject matter. Identify the kind of nonfiction it is (criticism, narrative nonfiction, how-to, etc.), and then label it according to topic. Be as concise as possible. For example, you might have an “adoption memoir” or an “organizational leadership how-to” book.
For CHILDREN’S BOOKS: Children’s books are categorized according to age group/reading level, complexity, and subject matter. Is it a picture book? A chapter book? Make sure you familiarize yourself with the kinds of children’s books being published, and clearly understand where your book fits in.

Tip: Unsure what category your book falls into? Most e-books are categorized according to a Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) code. For a full list of genres, subgenres, and sub-sub-genres, the BISAC code list is a great place to start.

5. Briefly present the premise of the book. This short paragraph should identify the plot, the main characters’ conflicts (both external and internal) and resolution, and any key themes in the book. Try to imagine how a publisher might describe the book on its back cover and how it might convince readers to buy the book. (Visiting the bookstore or library and reading the back-cover copy for other books in your genre is the perfect way to get your brain in “promotional copy” mode.) You’ll want to capture the tone and atmosphere of your book, while also making it sound like a compelling read. Don’t be coy—leaving out key plot beats or even the resolution won’t earn you any points here. Spoilers are absolutely invited; they reassure the editor or agent that you can complete a plot. That said, you don’t need to include every plot point and secondary character; stick with the “stars” of your story.

Your Background

As I mentioned, a good query doesn’t just sell the book—it also sells the author. The next paragraph is where you convince the agent or editor that you’d be a great fit for their roster.

1. Outline your writing credentials. A lot of authors already have previous writing experience. Have you been published in magazines or online? Have you already published a book, and was it successful? If you have a lot of writing experience, stick with your most high-profile and pertinent experience. If you have no publication credits, focus on what else “qualifies” you to write this book, such as …

2. Include your experience with the subject matter. What unique qualifications do you have that will increase your credibility as an author? Are you a lawyer writing legal thrillers? Were you a high school writing teacher for three decades? Especially if you’re writing a nonfiction book, it’s important to mention any personal or professional experience you have with your book’s topic or any related conferences or workshops you have attended or given presentations at.

3. Mention any special recognition for your work. If you’ve received awards or nominations—or some kind of professional recognition for your work in your chosen field (provided it is pertinent to the book subject), your potential agent or editor wants to know. You can also include “advance praise” from any notable authors or publishing industry professionals who have read your manuscript. (If the recognition you received is significant in your field or genre—for example, a Fulbright grant for your book's research or an RWA Golden Heart for your unpublished romance novel—you’ll want to bump that bit up to your intro paragraph.)

In Conclusion

You’re almost finished! These last few lines of the query should briefly address any additional comments before you sign off (in a very polite and professional way, of course).

1. Let the agent/editor know if your book has already been self-published. It’s important for agents and editors to know if there might be any potential conflict or legal issues should they take on your project. (Read here for three agents’ insights on working with indie authors.)

2. Mention if this is a simultaneous submission. Some agents and editors are very particular about this and would like to know if you are approaching anyone else with your book. You don’t need to name names—just mention that there are others looking at it.

3. Say thank you. Courtesy can make such a difference. Editors and agents can see hundreds of queries every month, so thanking them for taking the time to read your query acknowledges their hard work and consideration.

If you still feel like you’re not quite ready to try writing your own query, we recommend these resources for more information and sample query letters:

Happy querying!

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