The Perfect Pitch: Writing a Query Letter That Sells

Posted December 07, 2020 by Joe K.
A query letter can set an author apart or doom them to the rejection pile before a single word of their manuscript is viewed by an agent or acquisition editor. Knowing the ground rules of querying and the structure of a good letter is absolutely essential for any author hoping to be traditionally published.

The decision to publish a novel shouldn’t be taken lightly. Every novelist faces rejection in their career, and some agents can be quite rude. Our intent isn’t to discourage you from embarking on the publishing journey. If the publishing bug has bitten you, we'd like you to remember that persistence is key.

Before You Hit Send

We’ve had to talk some authors out of submitting their novel before they were ready. Remember, querying is your first impression, and you want it to count.

Is Your Novel Complete?

Non-fiction writers have different rules than fiction writers. Non-fiction works—except for memoirs—do not need to be complete at the time of querying. You will be expected to submit a small number of chapters and specify what makes you uniquely qualified to write about the subject.

Memoirs and fiction novels must be fully written and polished before submitting a query. Do not assume you’ll have a month to wrap up edits before you hear back from an agent. If you did your research and submitted your query to the right agent (and your query letter was excellent), you may hear back much sooner. We’ve also known authors who ran out of time and lost their opportunity to have their novel reviewed because their edits weren’t finished in time.

Don’t sabotage your first introduction to an agent by submitting a query before your book is ready.

Did You Do Your Research?

The key to a successful sales pitch is understanding your target audience. Developing a marketing plan can help you create some distance between yourself and your book. It forces you to look at your novel as a product and compare it to similar pieces of work. 

While you don’t want to be obnoxious (“I will be the next J.K. Rowling”), it is helpful to give people a quick, relatable introduction to your style of writing (“A Wrinkle in Thyme is about a spunky octogenarian on a quest to solve a local disappearance. The supernatural twist gives it a Charlaine Harris meets The Golden Girls vibe.).

Looking at your novel more objectively will help you define your target audience and which aspects of your book are most likely to resonate with them.

Are You Contacting the Right Agents?

Don’t carpet bomb every agent on your list. Take the time to research why your novel would be a good fit for their agency. If the authors they’ve landed contracts for have very different writing styles and you have to squint at the description of what they’re looking for to force a fit, don’t submit a query to them.

Keep a spreadsheet or working Word document with notes that capture why you believe your book is a good fit for each agent. You’ll be using your notes later to customize every query letter.

The Structure of a Winning Query Letter

Successful query letters are succinct. They don’t contain any unnecessary information, such as all the reasons you want to be published. You are selling your novel, and the only objective of your query letter is to inspire the agent to read more.

Before we give an example of a strong query letter, let’s talk through the components.

01 A Customized Introduction

If you want to stand out to an agent:
  1. Let them know precisely why you think your novel is a good fit.
  2. Mention what exactly about their submission requirements stood out to you.
  3. If you have a personal connection to them (one of the authors they are representing referred you) or pitched to them in person and received a request for a portion of your manuscript, remind them at the beginning of your query.

02 The Facts

Include a short description listing your book’s genre, number of pages/word count, and title. A relevant comparison to another author or popular culture reference can help give the agent a better idea of your writing style, but it’s not required.

03 The Main Character

Give a short description of your main character. Include a quick overview of what makes them special and what obstacles they must overcome during their journey.

04 The Story Teaser

When you write your teaser, you must remember three words:
Conflict, conflict, conflict.

Seriously. Conflict is the most important aspect of any good story, so make sure to include it in your introduction. You want the agent to understand why your main character is compelled to set off on an adventure, but don’t give away the ending. This isn’t a synopsis—just an introduction that should leave people wanting more.

05 Why You’re Uniquely Qualified

Close your query with a brief introduction to you. Include any unique qualifications that are relevant to your novel, awards, and other published work. If your book has received any recognition, be sure to include it here.

Example Query

Dear Ms. Alexandre,

(01) According to your website, you are actively seeking cozy mysteries with a supernatural slant. (02) I’d like to introduce you to A Wrinkle in Thyme, a 60,000-word cozy mystery featuring a spunky octogenarian heroine. The supernatural aspects give it a Charlaine Harris meets The Golden Girls vibe.

(03) Dottie Weathersfield recently celebrated her 80th birthday. Instead of receiving her requested pair of custom-bedazzled loafers, her imperious niece forced her to either accept the “gift” of a live-in home care aid or a one-way ticket to Trembling Acres Retirement Home. Dottie never married because she couldn’t stomach being told what to do. Who knew one lousy fender bender in the post office parking lot would undo a lifetime of personal freedom?

(04) When Dottie hears Annabelle Jackson, the closest thing to a daughter she’s ever had, disappeared from her place of work under mysterious circumstances, she leaps into action. Dottie knows the details of the crime hold too much in common with a string of tragedies fifty years prior to be a coincidence. Between her suspended license and a home care aid who acts like a mother hen, Dottie must find a way to give her caregivers the slip and find Annabelle before time runs out.

(05) A Wrinkle in Thyme was a finalist in the 2021 PNWA Contest. I currently run my own freelance copywriting business and have been published across numerous business websites, technology journals, and short fiction publications, including Story, Barrelhouse, and The Common. You can view my portfolio here. This is my first novel. 

As instructed, the first three chapters are included below. I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

F.C. Wedgewood

Why It Works

From the beginning, it’s clear that F.C. Wedgewood has done their homework. The agent has indicated they’re looking for the same niche genre Wedgewood writes, the word count is within the typical range, and the pop culture references make it clear that this mystery is going to have a hefty dose of humor.

It’s clear that Dottie lives up to the description of “spunky octagenarian.” She’s quirky and doesn’t like being told what to do. There’s plenty of conflict (between Dottie and her niece, Dottie and her home aid, and Dottie and whoever she rammed in the post office parking lot) and hints of dire consequences to keep the plot moving. While the author’s resume isn’t particularly compelling, the recognition the book received in the PNWA contest certainly helps.

Query Faux Pas

We’ve sat in enough agent and editor panels to hear an impressive list of query (and in-person pitch) horror stories. Most advice is common sense (be professional, don’t research them too much/cross personal boundaries, and keep your query brief), but there are some unspoken rules to cover.

Pay Attention to the Fine Print

Think of a query as an interview. Put your best foot forward by showing you can follow simple instructions. Agents take the time to write out exactly what they’re looking for, including whether or not you should send a portion of your manuscript with your query.

When the agent reviews your query, they will check to see whether you followed detailed instructions such as “only send the first 10 pages” or “be sure the sample is double-spaced.” If you decide your story is more well-rounded at twenty pages, the agent has every right to reject your query before they read the first line.

​If an agent signs a client, they want to sign someone they can work closely with. Don't give them a reason to think you're difficult.

Query One Agent Per Agency

Coworkers talk, which means if one agent at the agency isn’t looking for your kind of story but knows someone down the hall is, they’ll pass your query along.

​It also means they’ll know you queried multiple agents at the agency. It irritates them a lot when an author hits up the entire agency.

Don’t Get Cute

No one likes a gimmick. Use a standard font, text color, and don’t create custom art—unless you’re illustrating a children’s book—or mail them something weird (even if it’s on theme with your story). People look at extra gestures as creepy rather than endearing.

This article creates a solid framework for authors of any genre. We do encourage you to enlist friends to proofread your queries and seek out coaching to improve your response rate. We wish you the best of luck in your quest to be published!
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