Ask The Lit Coach: "What Are The Most Important Factors When Writing A Query Letter?" and More

Are query letters that difficult to master or are we just over-thinking the craft to this oft-perplexing piece of marketing material? Let's dig in, shall we?

Question from Leif H.

What do you feel are the most important factors when writing a query letter? Should I write it out like a text book or should I write it on the semi-serious side?

If there is one issue that has totally baffled writers about the business of publishing, it must be crafting the query letter. I have seen plenty of articles written about the subject and entire blog posts, workshops, book chapters and books devoted to helping writers craft the perfect query. You’ll notice throughout the mediums there are a lot of opinions, some consistent to what works and some conflicting - which I realize can be terribly frustrating when all you'd love in the world is to get an agent, any agent, to consider your work.

Agents read thousands of query letters a year. As a former agent, I can tell you there is no such thing as a golden query letter that will attract the positive attention of every agent. (Keep in mind, your query letter is very likely to be reviewed by an intern.)

But there are things you can do to ensure you’re putting your best foot forward with an agent or agency.

Be Informed 

What approach are you taking toward querying agents? Are you sending out a shot gun blast of queries to any agent you feel would take a look at your book, or are you thoroughly researching agents who have a successful track record in selling work like yours? Only query agents who accept your genre and have a track record in selling the genre. You will save yourself loads of time by targeting specific agents for your work.

Be Professional 

A query letter is the most important marketing piece you’ll write in support of yourself as an author. Agents want to know that you “get it” when it comes to communicating with those in the business. This means they want you to bottom line your book and experience, and tell them why you feel they’re the best agent for you on ONE PAGE. There are several formulas to get this info across but here’s what I personally liked to see when I was representing authors. Remember, this is just my preference. 

Dear Ms. Reel 

Opening Paragraph – Pull me into your book. If it’s fiction, break it down for me Hollywood style, “When X discovers Y, X has no choice but to Z." Think movie trailer or a very condensed book jacket copy. I want to know enough about the plot but still wonder how the book will end. If your book is nonfiction, what will I learn from your book? What's the hook? Lead with something that illustrates there is a market for your book, like a statistic. If your book is memoir, grab me by sharing an important/shocking/funny/enlightening fact or BRIEF anecdote about your life – something that really sums up your story.

Second Paragraph – Why am I the best agent for you? Did I represent your favorite author or an author within your genre? Did you read my blog/book/interview and connect with my business ethic? This paragraph can be very short and sweet.

Third paragraph – What do I need to know about you? What is your platform? What kind of social media presence do you have? Have you successfully published elsewhere? Do you belong to any professional area or national book/writing associations? Do you have any impressive self-publishing efforts? Do you have a popular blog or do you contribute work to other blogs/websites/journals/newspapers, etc.? Do you have an MFA? 

Nonfiction writers, what makes you the expert on your subject matter? Time to whip out those impressive letters you earned in university. Share any special training or experience you have here, and/or your job if it’s relevant.

Close the letter asking the agent if you could send them the first three chapters or the nonfiction proposal and thank them for their time and consideration. If you’re querying by mail, don’t forget to include a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) so they can request your material.

Most agents express on their querying guidelines a strict rule of not sending any attachments or manuscripts pages with the query. If you're feeling a little rebellious and want to include the first chapter of your manuscript with your query and synopsis, go ahead! I never automatically pitched those queries from writers who didn't follow the rules. Frankly, any agent who can't appreciate a writer's harmless enterprising spirit isn't worth signing with. 

Be Authentic

While the form of your letter should be professional, the tone should reflect who you are. If you’re truly funny and your book is funny, don’t be afraid to use humor in your letter. One of the best queries I received was actually a small pizza box with the query letter glued onto it. The book was about how men are like pizzas or something like that, I forget exactly, but it got my attention, made me laugh and appreciate the author’s sense of humor, too. And pizza is my most favorite food ever. I of course requested the manuscript. 

If humor isn’t your thing, don’t attempt it.

Just remember, you’re writing a letter to another human being, not God or Her Royal Majesty. They may like it, they may not – don’t waste time scrutinizing your letter once you feel you’ve nailed it. Just keep querying until you land an agent who is right for you and your book. And if all else fails, I hear Barnes and Noble and Amazon have great self ePublishing platforms that have really taken off. 

Good luck to you! My fingers are crossed.

Question from J.B.

When one receives comments or feedback relative to the novel being pitched, is it advantageous or disadvantageous to include such quotes in a query letter?

With all the books and services designed to help writers perfect their pitch, good pitches are a dime a dozen. It's become a nice little business for those who want to make a few bucks. What isn't communicated clearly enough with these developmental products is, YOUR PITCH HAS GOT TO BE AS GREAT AS YOUR BOOK! In my experience, if you can't succinctly pitch your book, you've got a breakdown in plot or character somewhere, and few writers really invest their time and energy addressing those issues - fixing the pitch is much easier. So, as a result of this 'Perfecting Your Pitch' movement, what I'm seeing are great pitches and not so great material. Don't get me wrong, I think these services have value but only to writers who can see the whole picture, not just the one part. Pitches are used to get your work seen but they don't sell your work entirely - the quality of your manuscript does. 

Bottom line is, the feedback you receive on your pitch or concept alone is not valuable to an agent.  

However, if you have approved endorsements from people of influence, like a professor from a prestigious university or MFA program, well-seasoned, respected and known professional, author, expert or celebrity - people who have actually read your work - that is worth something. One of my authors approached me with their proposal including the advance endorsements of Eve Ensler and Candace Bushnell. Of course, that became one of my leading sales tactics to get editors interested in reading the proposal and it worked.

So again, focus on getting solid praise of the actual book, not the pitch or concept. 

Good luck, J.B.!

LitReactors who have succeeded with landing an agent with a pitch perfect query, please feel free to share what worked for you. 

That wraps up Ask the Lit Coach this week, LitReactors. Thanks to all of you who submitted questions.

Now, go do something worth writing about.

Submit your question to The Lit Coach!

Erin Reel

Column by Erin Reel

Erin Reel is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. April 30, 2012 - 9:21am

Man, I really need to start re-writing my query letters.  This is going to be super helpful.  Thank you, Erin.

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... April 30, 2012 - 2:29pm

Thanks, Howie! Glad you found this helpful. Good luck to you.

Cat Phillips's picture
Cat Phillips from Western Canada is reading Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes April 30, 2012 - 3:07pm

I just received my first "official" rejection letter today, so this is a particularly timely article for me. I'm not prepared to take it (the rejection) personally yet, but this is good information all the same. I've got five queries out at the moment. If they all come back with form rejections, I'll know for sure my query letter needs work!

One thing I'm not sure I agree with is this:

In my experience, if you can't succinctly pitch your book, you've got a breakdown in plot or character somewhere

To me, I guess it stands to reason that if you can have a good pitch with a poor novel, you can just as easily have a good novel and a poor pitch. They are very different forms of expression. I do understand what you are saying, here. I guess the implication just smarts a little...

Anyways, thanks for a great article. Your posts are a great resource!

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... April 30, 2012 - 6:07pm

Two things I didn't cover with this query letter issue - have your query letter proofread just as you would your novel or proposal. And, sometimes you can have the best query ever but there are myriad reasons why agents will turn you down so please take a form rejection letter worth a grain of salt. If agents give you a nugget of feedback that's helpful/constructive, that's the stuff to consider. 

I can see I'm going to have to write about what to do with rejections.

And yes, the pitch problem - it's not so clear cut. I'm just speaking from my personal experiences hearing writers pitch their work and then reading what was pitched. Pitching verbally is probably one of the most intimidating experiences ever especially when faced with an agent who has heard everything (they'll tell you so....but not all of them are so cynical). So, I hear you. They are very different forms of expression - one is art and the other, marketing. But alas, today's writer is expected to be both writer and marketer (a fact I don't love, but here we are, nevertheless).

Thanks for your response, Cat.


Joseph Beirce's picture
Joseph Beirce from Ireland is reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man May 1, 2012 - 2:25am

Thanks a lot!!


eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler May 1, 2012 - 2:59pm

Hello Erin,

Thank you very much for answering my question. 

I tried changing my query letter around to see if responses were any different.  I'm not shot gun querying by the masses as I do research agents before mailing/emailing them.  I recently got a rejection but it didn't seem like the generic no that I have become accustomed to.  The hook caught his eye, but it wasn't the bait he wanted in his mouth.  I think this has to do with me writing in a manner that is similar to how I talk and act around my friends that is somewhat obnoxious and joking.  I still kept the query professional and stuck to the basic hook, short synopsis, and personal background.  I actually had a little fun writing this and laughed a little whereas, looking back now, my other queries were kind of boring.  I feel like I'm on the write track, it's just down to finding someone who is interested.  I suppose if you're going to write a generic query you will get a generic denial. 

Thanks again Erin.

Sincerely Leif