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Secrets to a Great Book Query Letter

Categories: How to Publish a Book, Get Published.

Every day, thousands of writers mail out query letters. And every day, hundreds of agents and editors send back perfunctory rejections. Surprisingly, most of them want to say yes to writers. You can help! Your mission is to write a one-page—yes, one page!—query letter that respects their time, and sells your book idea and yourself as a writer.

Respect their time
Agents and editors are busy folks. As agent Julie Hill tells us, “I wish authors would be interested in how much time I do not have!” Agent Kimberly Cameron adds, “Sincerity is important. It lets us know that writers are serious about taking our time, and that means to me that they are serious about their craft.”

You have less than a minute to capture an agent’s or editor’s attention and interest. If he or she has to work to try to figure out what your idea is, forget it. Be straightforward and keep in mind what they care about: a viable idea with a clear market and a writer with credibility and marketing savvy.

Make sure the person you contact actually handles books like yours. Consult the most recent print or Internet sources you can find.

Most agents and editors with whom we talked prefer not to be contacted by phone, and generally do not return cold calls. Look at it this way: Most writers are not trained to pitch ideas convincingly on the phone. Put your efforts into writing a terrific query letter instead.

Finally, make it easy for the recipient by sending your query via first-class mail. As agent Andrée Abecassis says, “Please don’t make me stand in line at the post office for registered or certified mail. That exhausts me before I ever begin.” One agent says he doesn’t even bother to pick up certified letters unless he knows the sender.

Sell your idea and expertise
Your query letter has only one purpose: to get the agent or editor to ask for more material. Here are our five best tips:

  • Be compelling. For fiction, you need an intriguing synopsis. Make sure it’s your very best writing. For nonfiction, your letter must convey your sales hook—what agent Michael Larsen of Larsen/Pomada Agency calls “the most exciting, compelling thing that you can say that justifies the existence of your book.” A hook is short, pithy, engaging and clearly explains what is distinctive about you, the book and its market potential. One powerful agent we spoke to has this advice: “Take the strongest two lines from the pitch (what the book will do and why you are an expert) and use them in the first paragraph of the letter.”
  • Say what is distinctive about your book idea. Avoid claims like “the only book to” or “the first book to.” You don’t have to be the only or the first, but you do have to be different in some meaningful way. That means researching the market. As Abecassis says, “Tell me why this book is really different from all the other possible titles out there-and give me specifics, not hunches. Even if there are other competing titles, maybe you have something special to offer that will make it salable.”
  • Show that you can write. If you’re writing a memoir or autobiography, the story itself won’t be enough—no matter what amazing or important things have happened to you or your family. Memoir, autobiography and fiction all require artful writing: good storytelling, an eye for detail and a compelling narrative. Make sure your query letter demonstrates a command of the craft of writing.
  • Sell your expertise. Editors and agents are looking for writers they can promote, particularly in nonfiction. The most highly valued authors are those who have built a sizable national platform through, for example, their writing as journalists or their work as experts. In fiction, editors and agents are looking for writers who have been published (preferably in well-regarded publications) or who have studied with leading writers or gone to schools known for excellent writing programs.
  • If you have been published, be specific. Agents told us that it irritates them when writers say, “I am a published author of two books,” and do not provide complete information. If you haven’t been successful or have self-published to modest success, don’t hide it but don’t belabor it. Focus on what you’re doing in this new book and what you’ve learned that will set you up for success. Remember: Agents and editors want to say yes—why not give them all the help you can?

    Book Query Letter Basics
    1. Create a compelling opening paragraph that:

    • captures your idea in a few words and makes the reader want to know more.
    • indicates you are seeking an agent (or publisher).
    • tells how you found this agent (or editor), especially if you have been referred.

    2. Introduce yourself and your qualifications—be complete about your expertise and writing track record.

    3. Introduce your book idea.

    • Nonfiction: Give pertinent information including your hook and what makes it a fresh contribution.
    • Fiction: Provide a synopsis—and make it exciting.

    4. Craft a strong closing paragraph. Offer to send your proposal, manuscript, clippings, copy of a previous book or whatever else is relevant and impressive.

    5. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you don’t, you may not hear anything from either agents or editors.

    6. If you’re sending an e-mail, include the query in the message. Don’t ask agents or editors to download and read an attachment or visit your Web site—they aren’t likely to do it.

    Acquisitions editor and former literary agent Sheryl Fullerton and writer/editor Naomi Lucks are co-founders of YouCanWrite.com (www.youcanwrite.com). They are also co-authors of the e-book Help Them Say Yes: Writing an Irresistible Query Letter.

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