how to write a query letter

How to write a great query letter

that literary agents will love!
Sample letter + template included

You want to know what a great query letter to literary agents should look like? We’re going to show you a perfect sample letter in a moment.

But we’re also going to figure out what your query letter needs to do – and how you’re going to write it.

This blog post will give you everything you need – and I promise that if you are talented enough to write a book, you are EASILY capable of writing a strong, confident query letter.

OK. We’ll get stuck in in one second.

But I should probably tell you that I am a real author describing a real book. The query letter below pretends that this book is a first novel and I have no track record in the industry.

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

Remember that your query letter needs to accomplish the following goals:

  1. Introduce the purpose of your letter (ie: to secure representation).
  2. To define in a very concise way the manuscript that you’ve written (ie: title, genre, word count)
  3. To introduce your work at slightly more length – so you say what it is (setting / setup / premise / main character)
  4. To give a sense of the emotional mood of your work – what is the emotional payoff for the reader?
  5. To give a hint of your book’s USP or angle
  6. To say something – not much – about you

We’ll say more about all that shortly. But first up, here’s a query letter of a sort that would make any sane 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, 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.

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, a police procedural of 115,000 words. [title, genre, 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 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

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 full-scale 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

  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, either underlined or (better) in italics, please.
  3. You need to give the word count of your book, rounded to the nearest 5,000 words. (And one word of advice: just be sure your word count is approximately right for the market. Advice here.)
  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 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 – 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. 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 one 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. 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.

Query letters: the exceptions

OK, there are a few exceptions to the above rules. Of those, the two most important ones you need to know about are:

You are writing literary fiction

If you are writing genuinely high end literary fiction, agents will want you to strut a little, even in your query letter. So if you were writing about (Oh, I dunno) 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.

This kind of thing:

I got the idea for this story, while working as a game warden one winter on the Hebridean island of Macvity. I was all alone and with a deeply unreliable internet connection. It occurred to me that my solitary life had its religious aspect and I became very interested in female monasticism. Blah, yadda, yadda, blah.

(Sorry for the blahs, but personally I like books that have corpses in them.)

The idea of this kind of approach is that you are selling the book (its themes, its resonances), but also you’re selling yourself – you’re showing that you can walk the talk as a literary writer.

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 those cases, then your query letter does need to outline your platform in sufficient detail. You may even want to kick that outline over into a separate document. However you handle it, the “one page query letter” rule can safely be binned. Your prospective agent wants to know what kind of platform you can supply – so tell her.

Oh yes: and having a website is not a platform. Having 10,000 followers on Twitter is impressive, but means nothing in the context of national or international marketing. In short: if you are going to make a big deal of your platform, your platform itself needs to be a big deal. That means having six- or seven-figure numbers to boast about. Nothing else will really cut it.

You are writing non-fiction and you have extraordinary authority

Much the same goes if you are (let’s say) writing a book of popular psychology and (like Daniel Kahnemann) just happen to have a Nobel Prize to wave around.

If you bring amazing authority to a topic, then you need to cover that, either in your query letter or a separate bio. Again, the one page rule just doesn’t apply.

What to do if you don’t hear back from literary agents

So. Let’s say you’ve got a shortlist of agents. You’ve checked those agents’ websites for their specific submission requirements – probably opening chapters + query letter + synopsis.

You use our query letter sample and write your own perfect query letter. You avoid any weak language, misspellings or grammatical howlers, of course.

You use our advice to put together your synopsis (advice right here.) You don’t spend too long on writing the synopsis either, because if you use our techniques, that process is simplicity itself.

You read the opening chunk of your manuscript one last time – and follow our simple rules on manuscript formatting.

And then – well, you send your stuff off.

You light some candles, pray to your favourite saints, tie a black cat into a knot and throw a mirror over a ladder. (Or under it? Or something to do with a wishing well? I’m not sure. Superstition isn’t my strong suit.)

Anyway. You get your stuff out to at least 6 agents and preferably more like 10-12. You wait an unfeasibly long amount of time – but let’s say 6-8 weeks as a rough guide.

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?

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.)

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