Query Letters | Do Writers Really Need One?

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query letters, manuscript consultationWhatever you write, whether it’s memoir or fiction, you’ve probably heard that you need query letters in order to reach agents or publishers. 

What exactly are query letters though? And do you really need one?

Whether you’ve just started dipping your toes in the writing/publishing world, or you’ve been around here for a while, you probably recognize there are a lot of tips and advice people want you to follow. Web sites will fill your head with hard facts. Everyone offers mission critical advice, and have-tos.

Some of that advice you can ignore. Others you’d be best advised to take seriously.

I’m here to say that you can put the need for a good query letter into the second category. Writing a good query letter is an absolutely vital aspect to the publishing process. It serves as the key to seeing your written work in print, whether you’re a fiction, non-fiction or memoir author. 

WHAT ARE QUERY LETTERS FOR?

The first thing we need to clarify is the purpose of the query letter. Most of you may have heard the term before, but don’t really understand why you would write one.

I can help you understand that.  

The purpose of a query letter, in general terms, is to serve as a one-page introduction to you and your specific writing project. Usually, the letter is addressed to a literary agent or manager in the hopes that the contents motivate them to request your work.

It is considered an industry taboo to send your complete manuscript to an agent or publisher – unless it has been previously requested. Most industry professionals expect to field a query from prospective writers and, on the strength of that letter, they may request pages. 

Query letters have been around about as long as the publishing industry. For as long as writers have been writing manuscripts, and seeking publication or representation, there have been queries. Think of what you’re about to do as a time-honored introduction.

Has the modern focus on email made query letters irrelevant? Yes and no. Just remove the idea of writing a letter in the traditional sense. You’re not going to write your letter, print it and place it in an envelope. You’re likely to write the letter and send it to the agent or publisher of your choice via email.

query letters

COMPONENTS OF QUERY LETTERS?

Here are the five key components to writing a strong query letter.

1.) An opening salutation. Your query letter should be addressed to someone. The old general salutation of “Dear Sir/Madam” doesn’t cut it. 

Do your research. Find the name of your target professional and address the letter to them. Simple is better, meaning, if their name is Ben then “Dear Ben” is sufficient.

2.) Announce your purpose. After your opening salutation, describe for the agent or publisher why you’ve decided to write them a letter. 

Are you pitching a book? Do you have an 80,000 word techno thriller you’re seeking representation for? Now is the time to tell them. You have some leverage to get clever here. If you’re writing a murder mystery, feel free to use colorful language, like it’s a killer read. 

Just don’t go overboard.

3.) Deliver the hook for your book. What are the elements that sell your unique project? 

I won’t cast any illusions here. This is the most challenging aspect of the query letter, but with some practice, you should be able to craft three to four sentences that capture your character, the world, and what makes your book stand out. 

4.) A story synopsis. Beyond the hook, the book’s it-factor, you need to give a concise description of the story in general. 

In an artful manner, in around one hundred words, you want to convey to the agent or publisher the key story elements. What is the plot? Who are the primary characters? What are the central questions, or themes, that drive your story? 

5.) Pitch your credentials before signing off. Have you published anything prior to this? If you’re a non-fiction author, what makes you the ideal candidate to write this particular book?

I’ve seen a lot of confusion on this one, and a lot of contradictory advice, and I think that speaks to the highly subjective nature of this part of the letter. Just in the last month, I’ve heard, cite any writer credentials you have (published stories or awards) as well as don’t cite them unless they’re top shelf credits. The key, I think, is to do what makes sense for your letter. If you can find a way to connect to the reader (who has read one hundred of these letters today) by bringing up your third grade writing contest, do it. If not, leave it out. 

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE DONE

You send it out. 

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound glib there, but the agent or publisher of your choice can’t consider your well-written and crafted letter (and ultimately your manuscript) unless you send it to them. The best case scenario is that professionals are attracted to your letter and motivated to request pages. Even with the best written letter, however, you need to know that the process before you is a crapshoot.

You simply never know. I have met new authors who queried a hundred publishers before receiving any interest in what would become best-selling books. I’ve also seen manuscripts scooped up in a heartbeat that languished in “development hell” before disappearing. 

Like I said, you never know until you send it out.  

There is a whole lot to say about best practices when it comes to querying agents and managers. If you’ve followed the above instructions then your letter should be sufficient to reach out to your target professional. The tip I’ll leave with you, however, is to query in batches. Send five to ten at a time and wait for the response. If you’re not receiving any interest, you may want to tweak the letter. 

*** 

I hope this blog addressed some of your questions about query letters. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. 

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