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How to Write a Great Query Letter (with Hints + Tips)

How to Write a Great Query Letter (with Hints + Tips)

Sample query letter + template included

You’ve edited the daylights out of your novel, you know it’s ready to take the world by storm… and so now, it’s time to find an agent. A great query letter will help your submission stand out in an agent’s inbox — and we’re going to show you how to write the perfect letter.

We’ll get started with an example — a real example, from a real author describing a real book (me, describing one of my books, although I’m pretending a number of things here: that it’s a first novel, that I have no track record within the industry, that I finished writing it just this year) — and then we’ll show you all the steps you need to make your letter sing.

Tiny digression: this isn’t a complete guide to getting your book published. You can get that here. Nor is it a full guide to getting an agent – more info here, and here.)

Write A Query Letter In 3 Easy Steps:

  1. Introductory sentence – include your purpose for writing (you’re seeking representation!) book title, wordcount, genre.
  2. 1-2 paragraphs about your book – what your book’s about and why a reader will love it.
  3. A brief note about You – who you are and why you wrote the book.

Here’s What A Query Letter Should Look Like

First up, here’s a query letter of a sort that would make any agent want to start reading the manuscript in question:

Dear Agent Name

I’m writing to seek representation for my first novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD. It’s a police procedural in the mold of Tana French’s DUBLIN MURDER SQUAD novels and it is complete at 115,000 words.

The book opens with news of a murder: a young woman and her daughter have been found dead in a rough area of Cardiff. The house where they’re found is in poor condition, but in the corner of the room is a platinum bank card belonging to a local millionaire. A millionaire who died in a plane crash some nine months previously. New recruit, Detective Constable Fiona Grifffiths is assigned to the investigation.

Puzzling as this crime looks, it’s not the heart of the book’s mystery. It becomes rapidly clear that Fiona Griffiths herself is a very peculiar woman, who is withholding crucial secrets from the reader. Who exactly is her father? What was her childhood illness? And what is it with her and corpses?

I currently run my own small consultancy business, and this is my first novel. I look forward to writing further novels in the series. I’m writing to you because I know you represent Jo Nesbo and Chuck Wendig, two authors I deeply admire and whose work was absolutely an inspiration to this book.

I enclose the first three chapters and a synopsis. I hope you like what you see and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,

Harry Bingham

Simple right? And you can do it, no?

Here’s that query letter again with my comments highlighted in bold:

I’m writing to seek representation [the purpose of you getting in touch] for my first novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD. It’s a police procedural in the mold of Tana French’s DUBLIN MURDER SQUAD novels and it is complete at 115,000 words[title, genre, comp title, word count – all defined fast and clearly.]

The book opens with news of a murder: a young woman and her daughter have been found dead in a rough area of Cardiff. The house where they’re found is in poor condition, but in the corner of the room is a platinum bank card belonging to a local millionaire. A millionaire who died in a plane crash some nine months previously. [This sets up the basic premise of the crime story. Already, the agent has the basic co-ordinates she needs to navigate.] New recruit, Detective Constable Fiona Grifffiths is assigned to the investigation. [Introduce main character – clearly and succinctly.]

Puzzling as this crime looks, it’s not the heart of the book’s mystery. It becomes rapidly clear that Fiona Griffiths herself is a very peculiar woman, who is withholding crucial secrets from the reader. Who exactly is her father? What was her childhood illness? And what is it with her and corpses? [This hints nicely at the book’s mood and USP. It starts to suggest the emotional payoff – a mystery to do with the book’s central character.]

I currently run my own small consultancy business, and this is my first novel. I look forward to writing further novels in the series. [A line or two about me. Confirmation that I understand I’m writing a series – an important touch for this kind of fiction.] I’m writing to you because I know you represent Jo Nesbo and Chuck Wendig, two authors I deeply admire and whose work was absolutely an inspiration to this book. [An acknowledgement as to why you’ve written to this agent, something showing that you’ve done your research.]

I enclose the first three chapters and a synopsis. I hope you like what you see and look forward to hearing from you. [Wrap it up. The whole letter easily fits onto one page. And yes, I know you’ll be sending an email, but you know what I mean.]

Now you know what you’re doing, we’ll get into a slightly more specific analysis.

Read a sample literary agent query letter

What To Include In Your Query Letter

So, let’s recap what your letter needs to include:

  • Avery brief 1-sentence summary of the book and your purpose in writing it
  • A somewhat longer, 1-2 paragraph, introduction to the book. (Not a full-scale plot summary, that’s for the synopsis).
  • A brief introduction to you.
  • Your materials, tailored to the submission guidelines for that particular agent.

It also needs to be short: no longer than a page, and ideally even less than that.

I’d also recommend you include some comparative (or ‘comp’) titles and perhaps a note about why you’re reaching out to this particular agent — but we’ll get to that.

The One-Sentence Summary

Consider this your thesis statement, your whole reason for writing this letter.

  1. You need to say why you’re writing. (You’re seeking representation, right? So say so.)
  2. You need to give the title of your book — in italics, please.
  3. You need to give the word count of your book, rounded to the nearest hundred words. (An additional word of advice: check out our handy guide to word counts to be sure yours is approximately right for your genre’s market.)
  4. You need to give the approximate genre or territory of your book.

If you do those things, the agent can instantly understand what you want and what you’re offering. You will also, by the way, prove yourself to be a swift, professional writer.

The One-to-Two Paragraph Introduction

First, it’s important to say what this is not.

You are not writing a back-of-book blurb. Nor are you writing a detailed outline of your story. (That’ll come in the form of your synopsis – more synopsis help right here.)

What you are doing is explaining what your book is and why a reader will feel compelled to read it.

That ‘what’ element will typically be a matter of presenting some facts. You need to give some more information about your settings, your premise, your characters and so on. You don’t need to be as salesy as a cover blurb, and you don’t need to be as dry as a synopsis. Think about it almost as though you were chatting to your best friend and telling them about the book you’ve just been reading.

The ‘why’ element is equally crucial. Here, you are conveying something about emotions. What is a reader going to feel as they read the book? What kind of atmosphere will they inhabit? What kind of emotional payoff or challenge is likely?

A Brief Introduction to You, the author

There are a few elements to this, from which you can pick and choose depending on whether or not they apply.

About you
Luckily, agents don’t care too much about you. Nor should they. They should care about the book, and only the book. That’s a fine, honest, meritocratic approach. May the best book win!

That said, agents are obviously curious about the person behind the manuscript. So tell them something about yourself. It’s fine to be human here, rather than resume-style formal. It’s also OK to be quite brief. For example:

“I am a 41-year-old mother, with three children, two dogs, one husband, and the finest vegetable garden in the southwest.”

Why you wrote the book
If there is a real connection between who you are (a shrimp fisher, let’s say) and the book you’ve written (something to do with the sea and fishing) then it’s worth another sentence or two to tease that out a bit.

But don’t feel compelled to do that. In my case, I wrote a crime novel, just because I wanted to write one. I’m not a cop or ex-cop. I have no forensics expertise. I have no legal expertise. Or anything else relevant. And that doesn’t matter, of course – what matters is the quality of the book.

So if you have something good to say, say it. If you have nothing to say, then say nothing and don’t worry about it.

Your previous writing history
If you have some real background as a writer, then do say so. For example, you might have written a textbook or similar on a topic relevant to your own professional area. Or you might have won or been shortlisted for a major short story prize. Or perhaps you work as a journalist or copywriter. Or something similar.

If anything like that is the case, then do say so.

But if it’s not – don’t worry! We’ve seen a lot of agent query letters that say things like “I haven’t had much writing experience, but my English teacher always used to say that I would be a writer one day . . .” And, you know what? It just sounds feeble. So don’t say it.

Agents know that most slushpile submissions will be by complete newbie authors. And that’s fine!

Writing a series?
If you are thinking that this book wants to be the first in a series, it’s okay to say so, like I did in that sample letter above. But you don’t want to be too rigid or arrogant, eg “I have completed the first four novels in my Lords of the Silver Sword series, and have got complete chapter outlines for the next 11 titles. I am looking for a publisher who will commit fully to the series.”

Agents will almost certainly reject you out of hand for that sort of thing. Remember, you’re still working on getting your first book picked up — so keep the focus there.

Your Materials

Every agent is looking for something different, so be sure to check (and double-check) their submission guidelines. These are helpfully posted on the agency’s website — but they can sometimes even differ between agents at the same agency. Some may want to read the first twenty pages; others, the first three chapters. Some may ask for a synopsis, some might not.

Pay careful attention to specific formatting requests, as well. Don’t miss your shot by sending a PDF when they’ve requested all materials to be sent as a Word Document!

A Note on Comparative Titles

In today’s competitive publishing environment, it’s imperative that you prove that your book has market potential. The best way to do this is to include comparison titles that closely align with your book’s genre and tone. We recommend comparing your manuscript to at least two titles that were published in the last few years. While you might be inclined to compare your fantasy trilogy to that all-time best-seller The Lord of the Rings, a comparison like that won’t demonstrate any knowledge of the current fantasy market — whereas a comparison to N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy or Christelle Dabos’ The Mirror Visitor Quartet will show that you’re presently reading in the genre you’re writing.

A great way to think about this is also the classic “X meets Y” formulation, or the elevator pitch. I know your book is far more complex than a cross between, oh I don’t know, Beowulf and The Hurt Locker except with a female protagonist… but aren’t you hooked by that brief tease all the same?

Why This Agent?

There are a sea of diverse agents out there with a wide variety of specializations and genre preferences. This is good news for you because it means that there’s probably an agent who specializes in the specific genre you write for!

It also means that it’s crucial that you do your research before finally sending your query letter. Tailoring your letter to an agent is the perfect way to demonstrate that you know your stuff and are serious about achieving agent representation. Make sure to look at the agent’s website to narrow down what sort of books they’re looking to represent. Try to really dig into their agent wish list and who they’ve represented in the past. Are they simply interested in fantasy? Or is it something more specific like epic fantasy with a strong female lead? Explain why you’re reaching out to them specifically and why they’re the right agent for you, whether that’s because they represent authors you love or because they’re specifically looking for a book that’s just like yours.

This doesn’t need to be a long section and it fits conveniently in your introduction or conclusion.  

We can help YOU get published.
Did you know, we have a complete course on getting published? The course covers absolutely everything you need to know: how to prepare your manuscript, how to find agents, how to compile your shortlist, how to write your query letter and synopsis – and much, much more besides.

That course is quite expensive to buy . . . so don’t buy it. The course is available completely free to members of Jericho Writers. Not just that course. You get our Agent Match tool for finding literary agents. You get our awesome How To Write course. Plus our members get regular opportunities to pitch their work live online to a panel of literary agents.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? So hop over here and find out more about joining us.

Some Exceptions in Query Letters

There are, as ever, exceptions to any rules. Of those, the two most important ones you need to know about are:

You Have A Personal Hook

This will usually apply to those of you writing high-end literary fiction: you have, if you’d like it, a little bit of room to strut. For example, let’s say you were writing about a fictional nun in 14th century Florence, you might talk a bit about the themes of your work and what inspired you to pick up this story. “While I was living alone on an island off the Scottish coast, I began reading about female monasticism and soon found myself, when I wasn’t tending to the sheep, compelled by the stories of…” or something like that.

If you’re aspiring to be the next Lauren Groff or the next Orhan Pamuk, it’s okay to not only sell the book but yourself too. Don’t get too carried away — remember, agents are looking for good writing more than anything — but if you have a personal or interesting stake in what you’ve written, share it!

You Are Writing Non-fiction And You Have A Remarkable Platform

Let’s say you are writing a cookbook and you have a couple of million people who subscribe to your YouTube channel. Or you are writing a book about motorcycle repair and you have a motorbike-themed blog with 250,000 monthly readers. In those cases, you have to delineate your platform in enough detail to convince an agent (and ultimately a publisher) that you are the right person to write this manuscript.

In such cases, you’ll want to be honest about such a thing. Add a few sentences to your ‘brief’ introduction and lay out just how incredible you are. Just keep in mind that having a website or 10k Twitter followers does not a platform make — this is an exception for those of you who are true authorities on the topic, whether that means you’ve got six or seven figures following your output or you’ve recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics and are ready to publish a book distilling your genius for the masses.

But you know what? Still keep it concise. That one-page-or-less rule still matters, because it’s the 21st Century and if you write that you have the fastest-growing newsletter subscriber base on Substack… agents can look you up. And they will, so make sure you aren’t fudging those numbers.

What To Do If You Don’t Hear Back From Literary Agents

So.
You’ve got your shortlist of at least 6 / preferably something like 10-12 agents and you’ve checked their submission requirements.
You’ve your own perfect query letter, avoiding any weak language, misspellings, or grammatical howlers.
You’ve used our advice to put together your synopsis, which you haven’t spent too long writing because, if you’re using our techniques, the process is simplicity itself.
You’ve followed our simple rules on manuscript formatting.

Time to send off your queries!

Go ahead and light some candles, pray to your favorite saints, throw a mirror over a ladder. (…or is it under? Or maybe the mirror goes into a wishing well? Whatever works for you, honestly.)

And now… you wait. Sometimes you’ll be waiting only a few days (rarely), sometimes you’ll be waiting for three months. Expect that, on the whole, it’ll easily be 6-8 weeks before you hear a response.

When that email does come in, what happens next? They might ask to read more — or they might reply with a rejection.

Now keep in mind: rejections do happen, and are likely to happen even if you’ve written a great book. Agents take on maybe a handful of new clients a year, or they might already have an author who writes something too directly competitive to your book, or they just like a different sort of thing. It isn’t necessarily about you or your book!

But if you send your material out to 10-12 agents, and find yourself being rejected by all of them, then you have to ask yourself:

  • Am I being rejected because I’ve chosen the wrong agents?
  • Am I being rejected because my query letter / synopsis are poor?
  • Am I being rejected because my book isn’t up to scratch?

And truthfully, the third of these issues is by far the most common.

If you’ve written a great book, and a rubbish query letter, you can still find an agent. The other way around? Never.

If you are confident that you’ve gone to the right agents, and have been rejected by 10+ people (or heard nothing after 8 weeks, which amonts to the exact same thing), then the probable truth is that your book is not yet strong enough for commercial publication.

And, you know what?

That’s not a big deal.

All books start out bad. Then they get better. So getting rejected is really just a signal that you still have further to travel down that road. The right agent will be there when your book is read, so get to writing! And good luck!

Also, remember that getting third party editorial advice is the standard way of improving your work. We offer outstanding editorial help and you can read all about it here. Alternatively, join the Jericho Writers family, and you can get a ton of help absolutely free within your membership. Free courses on How To Write. Free courses on Getting Published. Free access to AgentMatch. And so much more. Find out more here.


About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).

As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)