Apart from your novel, your query letter will be the most important thing you will ever write.
It is your one and only chance to attract a literary agent or publisher, and however good your story, if you fluff it you will end up on the slush pile.
But writing the perfect query letter doesn’t have to give you nightmares – in fact, it can be quite fun to sell your work if you remember a few golden rules:
Before you send your material to any publisher or agent, do your research. Use the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or other resources to identify which publishers bring out books in the same genre, and which literary agents take on authors like you. I don’t need to tell you that there is no point sending your romance novel to a publisher of horror and crime novels.
Give them a hook. Outline briefly (certainly in one paragraph or less than 200 words) what the book is about. The publisher is looking for what makes this book special, and what will make their customers want to read it. Publishers and agents certainly don’t want to have to search for this USP in reams of description, so make sure you tell them early on. Avoid going into too much detail, and don’t be tempted to mention characters who do not have a main role. Now is a good time to stop thinking artistically about your book and start thinking of it as a product – publishing is a business after all. Unlike in the full synopsis, you don’t need to reveal the ending of the book in this part of your letter.
Introduce yourself. Publishers don’t need to know your favourite colour, but they do want to know whether they will be able to market your book. This is particularly important for non-fiction. What makes you an expert in your field? Do you have any academic qualifications? Have you conducted important research on the topic? For fiction, describe briefly why you came to write the book. Perhaps you grew up in India during the 1960s, and this has inspired the setting of your novel. Keep this brief and factual, and include any prizes you have won or email subscribers you have.
Tell the full story in the synopsis. Unlike the ‘hook’ above, remember a synopsis doesn’t have to leave the reader in suspense. The publisher will want to know what happens in the book and how it ends. If there is a twist or a conclusion to the book, then the publisher will not like this to be withheld, as it is a USP.
Research the competition. This is less important for fiction, but non-fiction agents and publishers will expect you to have looked into what else is out there in your genre. If you have written a book about raising a child with autism then point out the competition and why your book is different. There is nothing more dispiriting for a publisher than finding a bestselling competitor the author isn’t aware of.
Don’t say that your book will appeal to everyone. That simply cannot be true. You need to have researched your market, who your readers are and what are their habits. Publishing is a business, and publishers will not take something on if they do not believe there is a market for it.
Do include the word count of the book. Vague statements such as ’200 pages’ aren’t helpful, and agents need to know whether the book is at a publishable length. As a commissioning editor I lost count of the times I would receive a great-sounding book submission only to find out later that it was only 20,000 words long…
Do use fairly short sentences in your letter. Boredom sets in very early with editors as they receive and read so many submissions a week.
If you have had your manuscript assessed or edited by a professional, mention it. This will give publishers confidence that it’s not just a great idea – it’ll be well written as well.
Only follow up after the stated waiting time. If an agent or publisher’s website says 6 weeks then you really don’t want to be calling them up the next day to ask if they received your letter…