So your book is finally done. After months, years, of perseverance and hard work, you are ready to publish your novel. And you’ve got your eye on traditional publishing.

To many authors, the #1 goal is still to get traditionally published. If this is your goal too, your work is not nearly done. Next you need to write the most important thing you’ve ever written: the sales pitch for your book: the query letter.

What is a query letter?

This is the letter you will be sending to agents and publishers as the first step in convincing them to take on your book. Publishers rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts to begin with, and when they do, you’d better have a killer query letter to grab their attention, otherwise your manuscript will go straight to the slush pile. Rather than sending your manuscript immediately, it’s best to first send a query letter to pique their attention.

A query letter is your book’s elevator pitch. Short, sweet, and to the point, your query letter not only provides the publisher/agent with a synopsis of your book, but it also gives them a glimpse of your writing style and personality. A good, effective, query letter is the first step in getting a publisher to sit up and take notice.

What should be in a query letter?

Your query letter should consist of the following:

Paragraph 1: The introduction

In the first paragraph you should introduce yourself to the agent, and state the word count, genre, and title of your book. This is the hook – if the agent/publisher is not drawn in by your first paragraph, you’re fighting a losing battle. It’s important to also mention WHY you are contacting this specific publisher or agent. This shows that you have done your research. Does your book fit into their list? Are you familiar with some of their earlier work, or have you seen them speak at a seminar? Establish a personal connection if possible.

This all sounds like a mouthful for only a short paragraph, but it can (and should) be done in very few sentences. E.g:

Dear Mr. Skywalker,

I’m currently seeking representation for my 80 000 word YA debut novel, A Sky Full of Maybe. Given your interest in science fiction, I believe my book would be a great fit for your list.

This paragraph conveys all the necessary information and shows that the writer is familiar with the agent’s genre preference.

Body of letter

The body of your query letter should contain as few as two to four paragraphs, in which you’ll convey the basic plot of your novel. Include interesting/main characters, the goal/challenges they will face, and what the reader can expect from the novel. Don’t give away the whole plot though; leave the agent wanting more.

Tell the agent a bit about you and your background. Give them a short bio so they know your story. Show them you are serious about writing. Mention any awards, certifications or writing experience that you may have. Refer them to your portfolio.

NB: If you have any marketing prospects, be sure to mention them. An agent will be very interested to know that you have thousands of engaged followers on your book’s Instagram account, or that you plan to market the book to the hundreds of students enrolled in your online course.

Important tips

  • Use the same (or a similar) tone as in your narrative. This gives the agent a glimpse of your writing style and personality.
  • Use short, to the point sentences. Don’t ramble. Do NOT go over one page.
  • Don’t be self-deprecating – make it clear that you believe in yourself and in the book. But don’t brag, and don’t make ridiculous statements. No, you are not ‘the next Stephen King’. Maybe you are, but if you are your writing will speak for itself.
  • Be sure to follow the submissions guidelines; usually to be found on the publisher or agent’s website. If you fail to follow instructions right off the bat, you’ll be going straight to the slush pile.
  • Make a point of mentioning that your book has been professionally edited. This shows that you are serious and professional about your writing, and willing to make a personal investment.
  • Send query letters to as many agents and publishers as you can make time for. Volume is key. Be sure to still keep each opening paragraph personal and specifically addressed to the person you are writing to.

Don’t give up!

We all know the stories of how many rejections some famous authors received before finally being published. Keep at it, eventually you will find the right fit, at the right time.

Happy writing!