Updated: Oct 11, 2019
I know this series is technically about literary agents. But this one – and actually, Friday’s too – are more generalized to some degree. That’s what happens when you’re talking about how to write a perfect query letter.
Don’t get me wrong. Writing perfect query letters 100% applies to landing yourself a literary agent. It’s just that it also 100% applies if you’re going the small publisher publishing route.
Essentially, if you’re going to send an unsolicited request for publishing attention, you need to know how to write a query letter.
And not just any query letter, but a "perfect" one.
Because an imperfect one is going to land your manuscript (and that moment’s publishing dreams) right in the trash bin.
If you don’t want to waste your time and hopes, here’s what you need to know about these professional presentations.
You know how, when applying for a professional position at some company, you have to write a cover letter?
If so, you know how annoyingly time-consuming it is. How you can spend a good hour researching the company… analyzing your best traits to promote in light of what it does and what it stands for… and then composing the perfect blend of kiss-up and self-promotion.
All for a one-in-a-dozen chance at best at signing on with said company in the end.
Good! ‘Cause that’s essentially what you’ve got to do to get traditionally published. And you’ve got to do it in as few words as possible.
Compose a query letter.
A query letter is the publishing-world version of a cover letter. Its purpose is to 1) let literary agents or smaller publishing companies know that you and your book-to-be exist, and 2) to tell them exactly why that manuscript is the best thing since Shakespeare penned his last play.
Sound easy? It’s not. There’s an intense amount of work involved, including research, analysis, tailoring, serious levels of kissing up... and prayer. Lots and lots of prayer, at least if you’re going for the big guys. Because that’s the only chance you’ve got of getting through to them.
Admittedly, those last few lines might be a bit melodramatic. But only by a bit…
I wish there was a worthwhile template you could follow on how to write the perfect query letter. There are certainly tons of suggestions out there, such as this step-by-step guide from Reedsy:
Capture the agent’s attention with your greeting.
Craft an irresistible hook.
Write a tantalizing synopsis.
Reveal your credentials and your publishing savvy.
Personalize the letter for each agent.
Proofread everything you’ve written.
Thank the agent and sign off.
As step-by-step guides go, it’s pretty good. And if you want to read it in detail, it’s right here.
But it only goes so far because it only can go so far.
For one thing, many of those steps are re-arrangeable, as shown in the example below. If Maiden America wasn’t published and I was shopping it around, here’s how its query letter might look:
(All non-Jeannette DiLouie names in the example above are entirely made up.)
But it all depends on you, your manuscript, and what the literary agent or publisher is looking for.
That’s why my best query-letter-writing advice is to go directly to the literary agent or publisher’s website. Read everything about them, what they’re looking for, and what their submission process expectations involve.
Then do everything exactly as they say.
That’s the best way to get a yes instead of a no in this traditional publishing process.
Though even then, just a warning... There are no guarantees.