With loads of hints and tips on how to get your letter right
You want to know what a great query letter to literary agents should look like? Here’s a perfect sample letter below.
Just before we look at it, I should say that I am a real author describing a real book – this letter pretends that this book is a first novel and I have no track record in the industry. I’ve also assumed here the agent has allowed to me to send a synopsis and opening chapters along with the query letter. You need to check what each agent requires.
(Oh, and do note that I talk about a “query letter” in this blog post, which is the term used in North America. In Britain and Ireland, you’ll hear a lot of writers and literary agents talking about a “covering letter” – but it means the exact same thing. There’s just no meaningful difference.)
I’m writing to seek representation for my first novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD, a police procedural of 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 enclose the first three chapters and a synopsis. I hope you like what you see and look forward to hearing from you.
What to include in your query letter
All the letter must do is:
Give a very 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 plot summary, that’s for the synopsis).
A brief introduction to you.
Not be badly written.
That’s it. If you can write a novel, you can write that letter.
And each of those elements is simple enough.
The 1 sentence summary
You need to say why you’re writing. (You’re seeking representation, right? So say so.)
You need to give the title of your book, either underlined or (better) in italics, please.
You need to give the word count of your book, rounded to the nearest 5,000 words.
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 1-2 paragraph introduction to the book
First, it’s important to say what this is not.
You are not writing a back-of-book blurb. But nor are you writing a detailed outline of your story. (That’ll come in the form of your synopsis.)
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. It’s almost as though you were chatting to your best friend and telling her 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
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. JK Rowling was a newbie once . . .
Writing a series? If you are writing a series, then you should say so, much as I did in that sample letter above. Agents will like the fact that you recognise the series potential of your work and that you are committed to taking the steps needed to develop it.
What you don’t want to do, is sound overly rigid or arrogant. (“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.” — if you write something like that, agents are likely to reject you out of hand.)
How long should your query letter be?
Your overall letter should not run to more than a page. (Except that non-fiction and literary authors can give themselves maybe a page and a half). And that’s it.
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. And every month, our members get the chance to pitch their work live online to a panel of literary agents.
What to do if you don’t hear back from literary agents
So. You use our query letter sample and write your own perfect query letter. You put together your synopsis. (Advice on that here.)
What happens next? Well.
Rejections do happen, and are likely to happen even if you’ve written a great book. (Because agents have their hands full. Or just like a different sort of thing. Or have an author who is too directly competitive. Or anything else. It’s not always about you or your book.)
But if you send your material out to 10-12 agents, and find yourself being rejected, 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.
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.
Happy writing, and good luck!
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.)