In previous posts, we’ve explained why professionals prefer short, succinct query letters, and how to present them. It’s time to consider the query letter’s content.
For query letters, you should use:
- a business-type letterhead that gives your name and contact information
- basic white or off-white 8½ x 11-inch paper
- a standard typeface that can be read easily; avoid script or other typefaces that are difficult to read, even if you think they are eye-catching
- 10- or 12-point type
- black ink
- margins of 1½ inches at the top and bottom, and at least 1 inch on the sides
- an insert of a self-addressed, stamped envelope with the proper amount of postage
All enclosures sent with your query letter should be typed on good quality paper stock and in black ink. Don’t get fancy or, worse yet, cute. Avoid bold colors, gimmicky borders, or other features that could distract from your message.
Strive for brevity and clarity. Make your letters short, well-written, and to the point. Your main objective should be to get your foot in the door and to make the publisher curious enough to ask for more information about your book. The best way to do so is to clearly and professionally communicate the specialness of your book idea in plain, straightforward, easily understood English.
Make sure you’ve researched, so your letter isn’t headed for immediate rejection: “An immediate turnoff is when I receive an inquiry that shows that the writer hasn’t done enough research,” agent Edward Knappman, of New England Publishing Associates, explains. “If I get an inquiry regarding a novel, it’s obvious that they haven’t done enough research to learn that we don’t handle fiction. If they haven’t researched our agency, the first thing I ask is, ‘How can they do enough research for the book?’”
Another instant turnoff occurs when the agent’s name or the firm’s name is misspelled. Remarkably, agents have informed us, such misspellings are all too common.
A nonfiction query letter MUST include:
- A tight lead sentence describing your book. The lead sentence should be a grabber that hooks the reader and makes him or her want to read further. So sculpt your lead artfully.
Give the title, length, and what the book is about. Questions/answers, statistics and anecdotes can also make effective opening sentences. Explain why you selected this agent or publisher to query. It could be that the agent or publisher was recommended to you by one of their authors, or that you loved a book that he or she handled, which you feel is similar to your title. Agents and editors may respond more favorably to writers who have done their homework and know something about them and their work.
Keep your lead to two or two and a half lines. In you need to round off your lead or to add other crucial information that didn’t fit in your lead, add another short sentence, no more than a line or two. If you have celebrity status, work it into the lead or second sentence.
- A paragraph or two supporting and amplifying the lead.
a. Provide more details on:
i. the subject of the book
ii. why your book is special or how it differs from other books
iii. the market for the book
iv. how the book is organized or formatted
v. why it will interest editors
b. Point out problems that your book will solve and concrete ways that it will help readers.
c. Include facts or statistics that show the size of your book’s potential market.
d. State whether the manuscript has been written or when you expect to complete it.
3. Your biography. Don’t just use your standard resume or only stress your educational and business background, but show why you’re so uniquely qualified to write this book. Include your past writing credits, awards in your field, and your platform. Sell them, don’t just tell them!
4. A summary statement. Thank the recipient for his or her time and offer to send additional materials such as a proposal, sample chapters, or the manuscript.
Write a sound bite for your book, which many call an “elevator speech” because it can be delivered in the time it takes to go from the first to the second floor. Your sound bite should give a brief description that you can reel off in ten to fifteen seconds. When you perfect your sound bite, you can use it when you query agents and editors, write book proposals, and tell others about your book.
When you write your sound bite, remember the observation of theater impresario David Belasco: “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”