[Podcast] What to Include in a Query Letter

What is a query letter? And what should you include in a query letter?

A query letter convinces a literary agent to read your work. Think of it as a sales piece. It’s your first (and sometimes your only opportunity) to present your book in a simple, concise manner so that an agent can easily understand your book’s premise and quickly decide if they want to read more. 

It goes without saying, a query letter should be clean. There should be no grammatical mistakes nor spelling errors. It should also be short. A strong query will be no more than three short paragraphs. (The recommended is two!)

What else should you consider?

To get the insider scoop, we recently interviewed New York literary agent Miriam Altshuler, agent to Anne Tyler, Joseph Campbell, and Nadine Gordimer. After more than 30 years in the publishing world, Altshuler recommends that you include in a query letter these three things.

The Pitch

An eye-catching query letter needs a strong elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a marketing tool that summarizes your book. It’s short, concise, and makes the agent want to read more. Its purpose is to immediately hook an agent into your book. (Or a reader into buying your book.)

How do you create a pitch? Altshuler recommends you visit a local bookstore and read the flap copy of books in your genre. Flap copy is a book’s summary and typically found on the inside of a hardcover copy. As you read through different flap copy, determine which pitches grab your attention best. And then model your pitch based on these.  

An important part of the pitch—a part new writers overlook—is explaining what your book is about. Agents want authors to recognize that a book “has to have a heart—it has to explore something. It’s not just a story of two characters. It’s not just an idea.” Your pitch must explain what the ‘heart’ of your book is.

The best way to do this is to break your pitch into simple terms: “Character A meets Character B and explores X.” Then you can spend 1-2 sentences explaining what ‘X’ is.

In non-fiction writing, briefly explain the idea of your book and why your take on it matters.

If you can concisely explain what theme your book explores, then an agent will be more interested in your query.

Be Personal

Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. And the queries that stand out are personalized, thoughtful letters.

As you write your query letter, think about the ways you can ooze thoughtfulness. For starters, send out individual emails to agents. Do not clump agents into one email! That shows that you don’t see the value of individual agents—and what they offer the writers they represent.

You also want to maintain a respectful tone. Agents often read through query letters on the weekends or at night. They’re taking time out of their day to consider representing you. The least you can do is be respectful.

You also want to consider how you can personalize individual query letters. Did you read a book the agent represented? Did you meet them at a writing conference? Did you listen to an interview they gave on a podcast? However you learned of this agent, mention it in your query letter.

The best personalized statements are short and straight to the point. Say, “I read Author Blank’s This Is a Book and it inspired a subplot in my own book.” Or, say, “We spoke at [Writer Conference] where I pitched you on My Book Title. I’m following up on our conversation.”

On the flipside, you want to avoid generalized statements, such as, “I read in your bio that you’re looking for romance thrillers.” The more specific and personal you can be, the better!

Market Yourself

A large part of the writing journey is the market and promotion of your book. Today, publishing houses expect writers to have a following they can promote their book to. Because a following is so important to publishing houses, agents are looking for writers who understand the business of publishing.

A good query letter will present your market plan for your book. Altshuler explains you don’t need former marketing experience, or even formerly published books to prove your worth. All you need to do is explain why your book is competitive in the current market, what type of following you have, and how you will market your book. If possible, you’ll want to include important platform statistics.

Fiction writers who don’t have a social media platform, for instance, can demonstrate their reach by enumerating where they’ve previously been published and any writing groups they belong to.

An agent is more interested in a writer who is willing to market their book. Be sure to demonstrate your understanding of this requirement and your willingness to promote your book in your query letter.