If you’ve been stumped by the request for a ‘query letter’ and don’t know what it means, this post is for you. A query letter is simply the email pitch to a potential agent, editor or publisher for your book. It’s like the briefest introduction at a party to see if they want to settle into a conversation with you! And if they do? Then you send other things. But – first – you need to nail your query letter.
Read on for what goes into a query letter, how to write one, and what good things can come from a great query!
Wonderful things can come from query letters – like a book deal
I landed my first book deal from a query letter (also known as an email ‘pitch’).
My second publishing deal was from a query to a literary agent whose books were apparently ‘closed’ to new clients.
If you’ve slogged away on your memoir and now have the (terrifying) situation of sending out queries to publishers or agents, I know what it’s like! Here’s a few tips to help you whip your query into shape so that you get those four magic words in your inbox: request for full manuscript.
What is a query letter?
A query letter is actually an email – your first introduction to an agent, editor or publisher. If they like your query, they’ll ask to see more. You might also attach a sample of your writing, depending on their website requirements.
Keep it short
Guess how many queries a top agent or editor will see in one day? Now double that and add a few hundred other ‘urgent’ emails, twitter, phone calls, life issues and you’ve got a pretty high distraction point.
Your query is like your ten second audition. You need to NAIL IT the first time.
Word count = three hundred words MAXIMUM.
While every agent and editor is different with their specifics (and you MUST check their website for these – from font to postal address or how to format their address or email subject line for your query), the way you write the query itself is always the same.
Here’s what needs to go into each paragraph (50-100 words each).
Para 1 of your query letter
Hook, introduction, genre, word count.
Share any connections you have with the agent (eg. “Sarah Bonet introduced us at the San Francisco Writer’s Guild meeting last Wednesday…”).
If you have no connection, show that you know EXACTLY what they’re looking for (eg. Memoirs with a romance / cross-cultural twist, if that’s what they’ve recently shared on twitter / their website etc etc).
If you can’t find anything specific in this realm, focus on your HOOK.
Dear Ms Johnson
Why would a 57 year-old librarian leave a perfectly good job in Boston to take lion safaris in Zambia with a man she’d known less than a fortnight?
I’m seeking representation for my 88K travel memoir LOVE + LIONS. From your recent callout on Manuscript Wish List, I thought it would be a great fit for your list.
Para 2 of your query:
Summarise the story. Note: this isn’t a synopsis (for how to write your synopsis – which many agents will ask that you submit separately along with your query, read this post).
In this paragraph you need to use the narrative ‘voice’ of your memoir, and discuss what’s at stake for the main character (you), the biggest conflict or choice of the novel, and leave it on a question (so they want to know more). By leaving this paragraph on a question, they’ll (hopefully) want to know how or if that giant obstacle was overcome – and seek to read the rest of the story.
Throw in a couple of comparative titles if this makes it clearer how the story plays out and the style and tone of your writing, as well as key differences from your comp titles.
Keep this para to 4 or five lines, maximum. Don’t make your sentences too long, either. Focus on contrasts and questions. Don’t give away the ending the story – use your writing voice and leave them knowing the central question or theme of the memoir – but not the answer.
Para 3 of your query letter:
This bit is all about you. BUT – the person who’s reading it will be reading it as though it’s all about them.
What do I mean by this?
This is your bio section, the bit where you leave them intrigued about you.
You want to include any awards, clips or links that are going to absolutely wow them with your writing experience so choose either your biggest byline, or something that’s very relevant to a mutual connection or big name they’ve published before.
With my first query, for example, I mentioned publications where I knew the publisher I was querying had either commissioned a book from a feature story for that publication or personally knew an editor (so she could do her research on me – publishers do this.)
Having great clips when it comes to querying is another reason you should definitely write an essay around your memoir theme before you start querying.
My Number One Query Tip:
DO YOUR RESEARCH SO YOU CAN TAILOR THE QUERY!
Every publisher, editor and agent has their own way of working.
The worst thing you can do is make it seem like you’re sending 100 of these queries out on submission. Tweak your bio depending on what you know about that agent or editor’s interests.
These people are in demand, they’re busy, and they can make or break your publishing career. Show them that you care by doing some research.
One last thing:
Every agent or editor asks for different specifics. Some will want a hard copy query with a full page synopsis and between 5-50 pages as a sample of the manuscript itself. Do your research – check their query rules on the submissions section of their website before sending anything off.
Finish off by saying whether or not you also have a full proposal ready or the full manuscript. Also add whether or not the manuscript has been assessed or professionally edited.
A word about branding, social media and queries
Your outcome from your query is to get a full request for manuscript (or even partial, then a full). Their dream outcome is a book that’s going to sell like hotcakes.
Never forget that agents and publishers are in sales.
Think about it from their point of view – they want to see, both in your query and when they google you, that both your writing is good and your book will sell. Because memoir is true and personal (about you), there’s even more pressure that you be a lively and engaging interviewee / social media ‘person’. I can hear you groaning but it’s just the way things are, now. Gone are the days when we could send off our books for written reviews and hide away in our garrets, working on the next thing. Social media has made it easier in many ways, for writers to connect with both other writers and other agents, but it requires discipline and focus to stay on track and keep your messaging on-brand.
What do I mean by this? If your book memoir is a bunch of cupcake recipes and about how baking saved your marriage, then daily tweeting / instagramming about super-sweet cupcakes is great.
If your memoir is about a diabetes journey? Perhaps don’t post endless cupcake tweets.
The key is to add value with your social media. Follow and interact with people who care about the same things as you, and this is how you authentically build up your following.
Share valuable information that somehow ties into your memoir topic or theme and encourages people interested in that topic to follow you. Don’t just retweet, don’t just share other people’s instagram photos, and be original. The sales team at any publishing house will want to know you can meet them halfway with any kind of marketing and sales plan.
Your query must be short, sharp, and – like the first twenty pages of your manuscript – leave a busy editor or agent chomping at the bit to know more about you, AND your story. Your query will lead to a request for proposal or request for full manuscript – either way, you want that second date!
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