How to Get to Yes: Writing Highly Effective Query Letters

effective query letters

Do you want to land your book with a publisher?

This article shows how to write an effective query letter.

As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I often have to explain the elements of a good query letter to new clients.

Considering the high rejection rate in the book publishing industry for writers trying to become debut authors, this article will hopefully be enlightening for the countless writers who are experiencing rejection due to a poorly constructed query letter.

A lot of authors dread writing query letters. I know many authors who can write a novel in a matter of months, but who could endlessly spend years toiling overwriting a query letter. My advice to authors along the querying process is to nail the writing of that query letter.

A query letter that reads well is usually a good indication to the literary agent that the manuscript will similarly read well, inclining the literary agent to request a manuscript. Often the query letter can go on to become the publisher’s jacket copy, were the publisher to acquire the manuscript via the literary agent.

The Key to a Highly Effective Query Letter

A good query letter should lead with one to two sentences which describe what the book is about. This is like a hook or elevator pitch. You should mention the title, lend a sense of genre, and contain one-three competitive/comparative titles that were bestsellers or award-winners, published within the last few years.

If the author has pre-publication blurbs, those can appear before those first two sentences.

Next is a couple of body paragraphs detailing some of the plot details without too many spoilers. In that space, the literary merits of the manuscript can be mentioned. The last paragraph is usually reserved for a short author bio, mentioning relevant writing experience/credentials with links to an author site or social media pages.

The Trident Media Group literary agency prefers to be queried by authors via our website.

Remember that a well-written query letter will stand out! Bonus points for a query letter that carries a lot of author credentials, such as awards, nominations, bestseller status, writer group/workshop participation, successful publications in literary magazines/anthologies, and especially advance praise from other authors of note.

Personally, I find that the best time to query literary agents is the Spring or Summer as things start to slow down in publishing during that season. A bad time would be the Fall as everyone is just getting back from their summer vacations and settling in. A lot of professors on sabbatical and summer break are getting back in the Fall and flooding us with queries.
Only if the query letter is strong will a literary agent usually go on to request sample pages or a full manuscript unless their policy on their site is for an author to include a sample with the query.

Reading the submission policies of the literary agency on their website is important. For instance, many sites ask that an author query only one literary agent at a time at a given literary agency. Some literary agents pass stuff along to another agent if it isn’t for them, but only when it is good.

Usually, when it is a pass, it is a pass on behalf of the entire agency. If an author wants to query us again, we ask that they wait 30 days. That will afford them time to revise their manuscript.

Writers often toil over whether to name characters in a query letter. Only the primary characters should be mentioned, or just the protagonist and antagonist. Getting stuck on the title of the book, as well as the character names, is something I often see authors getting hung up on before they even get to write their query letters. As this is often changed,  authors shouldn’t dwell on it.

A well-written query letter will usually result in my request for a manuscript to read and consider. Seeing good writing in a query letter is more often than not a good indication that the manuscript will also be well written. That is why I always tell authors to think of their query letter as their storefront since it’s everyone’s first impression of a book.

Often, the copy from the query letter will find its way into an agent’s pitch or onto the jacket copy of a publisher’s book, so the query letter is an essential starting place.

The Worst Mistakes You Can Make When Writing a Query Letter

I would caution authors against too much personalization in a query letter since literary agents. I don’t need authors to say, “I like your work,” or, “My book is a good fit for you because it’s like XYZ book you represented.” Literary agents already know writers are approaching other agents as well. I for one am not one for idle chatter and small talk when it comes to chitchat in a query letter.
When agents request manuscripts, authors should be wary of requests for an exclusive, meaning that author won’t send the manuscript to other literary agents. The literary agent could sit on their hands for months.

It’s better to take the time to research the book agents and figure out for yourself who would be best for your manuscript

Apart from the act of querying, there are many mistakes that I’ve seen in query letters, but I will name just a few that would deter me from requesting the manuscript from an author:

  • Submitting queries for novellas, short story collections, poetry or textbooks will usually turn a literary agent off, as most literary agents do not represent such things. Publishers tend not to buy from literary agents in those areas in the first place.
  • Going outside of normal book-length. Traditional book length is 80-120K, and commercial fiction tends to be in the 80-90K-word range. Going outside of normal book-length will not produce good results for an author querying a literary agent for a shot at going into major trade publishing.
  • Writing within struggling genres such as cozy mysteries, erotica, or urban fantasy is also another way to turn a literary agent off in the querying process. We tend to be weary of that at Trident Media Group.
  • Writing a query letter before the book is finished.  It has happened to me and when I requested the manuscript, the author told me that the manuscript is either in idea state only or not fully written.That doesn’t help me at all as fiction can only be evaluated on a full manuscript.
  • Writing excessively long query letters. Some authors have a tendency to include the entire synopsis and sometimes even the first chapter or so of a manuscript. Remember, the query letter should be concise and fit on one page.
  • A typo or a misplaced comma will not shoot down the entire query letter, but it is still considered poor form.

Beginning in book publishing means much more than just having written an amazing manuscript.

I hope this article will help any writer new to book publishing to navigate some of the pitfalls of our quirky industry.

Mark Gottlieb helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to the Trident Media Group literary agency. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on PublishersMarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.

About the author

Mark Gottlieb

Literary agent Mark Gottlieb currently works at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group. Mark has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.

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