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Last updated on Nov 24, 2021

How to Write a Query Letter in 7 Simple Steps

Contents

A query letter is an inquiry to an agent asking if they’re interested in representing a book. For context, the best agents receive dozens of queries a day, but might only sign a few authors per year. So you can see how writing a strong query letter is crucial to your success as an author!

The good news is that once you’re familiar with the format, assembling your query letter should be no trouble at all. Here’s how to write a query letter that gets results, complete with downloadable query letter template. (Pssst, nonfiction authors — you’ll want our post on nonfiction query letters.)

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1. Capture the agent’s attention with your greeting

First off, keep the salutation simple. “Dear Ms. Tyler” is perfectly fine (assuming that the agent’s surname is Tyler and she is, indeed, a woman).

The next line should make the agent prick up their ears. If you’ve published before, you can start with that. Be sure to mention any critical recognition or awards you've received for your previous work!

I’m seeking representation for my second novel, Cobalt Eyes. This book is the follow-up to Inferno Hearts, which I self-published and which was shortlisted for the Jay Malcolm Independent Prize last year.

If you haven’t published before, another great way to start is with a personal connection:

We met last year at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and chatted briefly about your work with up-and-coming suspense authors.

Or better yet, get a referral from an established author or a publishing insider. “You want something that will bring the submission directly to the agent rather than an assistant or an intern,” says editor and former agent Fran Lebowitz (not the NYC-based author). “Showing that you are connected never hurts.”

Jane Doe at Del Rey Books suggested that I contact you regarding representation for my debut science fiction novel, Arbormancer.

If you have no industry connections to speak of, don’t panic — just jump straight into your pitch. You can go the factual route by starting with your title, genre, and word count (rounded to the nearest thousand): three key pieces of information that will instantly paint a picture of your book.

I’m writing to seek representation for my 92,000-word crime thriller, Operation Kill.

Alternatively, you can try gripping the agent's attention by starting with your hook (more on that in the next step!).

💡Pro tip: Mention your genre, word count, and target audience towards the beginning of your query.

2. Craft an irresistible hook

Within the first few pages of a novel, you need to make it impossible for readers to put your book down. In a query letter, you have to make do with just a few lines.

This part of the letter is known as the hook. Your hook should show agents how your book is different from the thousands of others in your genre. It should be an awesome concept that makes the reader wonder why someone hasn’t thought of it before.

Just look at the hook for Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter (later adapted into Showtime’s Dexter):

Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He’s a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likable: he only kills bad people.

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Another great hook might involve an intriguing central conflict, like the one in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight:

About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him — and I didn’t know how potent that part might be — that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.

Not only does this introduce the genre and tone, it sets up the narrator’s internal dilemma: she’s in love with someone who could possibly kill her. What will happen next? Is she walking into a trap? Will her love conquer the vampire’s bloodlust?

Perfecting your hook might take a while, but it’s hands-down the most important part of your pitch, so make sure you get it right! If you’re unsure whether it’s “grabby” enough, try testing it out on your friends — or better yet, have an editor with industry experience take a look.

3. Write a tantalizing synopsis

How to write a query letter | Query letter synopsis

Now that you’ve “hooked” the agent, it’s time to reel them in with your synopsis and get them to request your manuscript.

“The synopsis should really get an agent interested in your book,” says Erin Young, a literary agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. “Think as if you're writing the back cover of your book for future readers.” In other words, your synopsis is your opportunity to shed some light on:

  • The plot
  • The primary characters
  • The central questions or conflicts that drive your story

Following Erin’s suggestion, let’s look at the back cover of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and see how its blurb addresses those points.

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears.

 

Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media — as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents — the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior.

 

Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter — but is he really a killer?

With just over 100 words, this synopsis lays out the plot, offers an impression of two multi-layered characters, and leaves us with the question that serves as the book’s engine: Did Nick kill his wife?

Even without a grand mystery at the center of your book, you can still grip agents by vividly defining the central conflict and stakes. High stakes help readers invest in your characters and stories; otherwise there's no reason to care about the outcome of your book. So make sure the letter-reader knows what your protagonists stand to win or lose.

💡Pro tip: Your hook and synopsis should make up around 50% of your letter. That’s 150 or 200 words at most.

And now that the hard part is over, let’s talk about you: the author!

4. Reveal your credentials and publishing savvy

Following the synopsis, the “cherry on top” of your query letter will be what you’ve accomplished as a writer. Try not to ramble on about your day job or your hometown, as it’s much better to focus on your publishing history:

  • Have you had any short stories published?
  • Have you won any awards or writing contests?
  • Are you a graduate of a creative writing program?
  • Have you attended any writing conferences, workshops, or retreats?

That said, if you don’t have any quantifiable writing chops, it’s okay to write: “I live in Poughkeepsie with my wife and three kids. This is my first novel.” You could also mention your inspiration for writing this book, or explain why you’re the only person who can do this story justice.

I was inspired to write Bad Teacher by my decade of experience teaching in state prisons, in my home state of Missouri.

You can also show that you’re going to be an informed publishing partner with an awareness of the market. A great way to do that is by identifying comparable titles and authors. That’s where you say something like:

This book has the sprawling fantasy feel of The Starless Sea with the dark feminist bent of Mexican Gothic.

You want to make the agent think, “Ooh, I like those books! Maybe I’ll like this one as well.” However, avoid comparing your manuscript to:

  • Mega-successful books. You probably don’t have the next Harry Potter.
  • Hyper-obscure books. They won’t be impressed, they'll just be bewildered.
  • Books that are too dissimilar.High Fidelity meets War and Peace” paints a weird picture.
  • Outdated books. Comparing your book to The Da Vinci Code might have been impressive 20 years ago, but today would make you seem totally out of the zeitgeist.

Finally, if you’re a popular blogger or influencer or have a large social media following, bring it up! This lets agents know that you come with a built-in fanbase. Again, show them that you’re approaching this like a professional and that you can help your book become a success.

5. Personalize the letter for each agent

“You can tell when the letter’s just a generic copy-and-paste job,” says Amy Bishop, another agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. “It indicates that the author hasn't done their research on the agent or agency they're querying.”

At least a bit of personalization is crucial; without it, your letter is just spam. The easiest way to give your query a personal touch is to reference the agent’s existing clients:

I am a huge fan of your client, Michael Chabon. The setting of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was a major influence on my novel.

Or if you want to do one better, mention something that the agent has written or said in public.

I saw your presentation at the Literary Writers Conference last year. Your comments on the dearth of female protagonists in fantasy really resonated with me. My book attempts to redress that balance.

Don't lay it on too thick. Just show that you've put thought and effort into choosing which agents you query.

6. Proofread everything you’ve written

This step is extremely important in terms of preserving your professionalism! Before you call it a day, go back through the letter and triple-check that you’ve included the following details about your book:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • Audience
  • Word count
  • Comp titles

Make sure nothing is mistaken or misrepresented. If possible, get a friend to read through the whole thing to make sure your spelling, grammar, and punctuation are on point.

7. Thank the agent and sign off

No muss, no fuss.

Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Sincerely,
Your Name

Don’t overdo the ending. Don’t try to arrange a meeting or tell them how amazing it would be to work together. Just thank them and sign off!

8. Get a query letter review

Finally, if you want to guarantee that your query letter is firing on all cylinders, you can get a query letter review from a professional editor. This will ensure that every part of your letter is perfectly honed — and perhaps more importantly, that you aren’t sending up any red flags to agents.

Why is getting a professional query letter review so much better than, say, having a friend read it over? Because you can work with an editor who’s actually been an acquiring editor for a publisher, or maybe even an agent themselves. This intimate industry knowledge can be a game-changer for authors struggling to sell their books.

Looking for a query letter review?

The best professional editors are on Reedsy. Sign up to meet them today!

Learn how Reedsy can help you craft a beautiful book.


Not to mention that, compared to most editing costs, the cost of a query letter review is a real bargain — most of our editors charge between $50 and $150 for this service. Considering that a compelling query letter could be your gateway to a generous advance and lucrative career, it might be the best return on investment you'll ever get.

And that concludes our post on how to write a query letter! We realize we’ve just thrown a lot of information at you. If it seems like a lot to absorb, don't worry: we’ve created an infographic checklist to help you remember it all.

Download: Query Letter Checklist

How to write a query letter | Query letter checklist

Enter your email to download Reedsy's Query Letter Checklist!

You'll get it in your email inbox right away.


To see what a query letter should look like (and what you can expect from a query letter review!), check out the next post in this series. We've posted six examples of query letters from a range of genres that have been reviewed and improved by Reedsy editors.

16 responses

Cheryl Charlesworth says:

02/11/2017 – 18:19

Best damn post this side of the Altantic....thank you.

↪️ Reedsy replied:

02/11/2017 – 23:23

Aw, thank you! Glad you liked it!

Olga GOA says:

02/11/2017 – 20:22

Hello. But how to find this agent? :D

↪️ Reedsy replied:

02/11/2017 – 23:24

Ah, that's where the research comes in. In the next few weeks we'll be following this post up with another one that will be all about researching agents. Watch this space, as they say :)

Mandy Suhre says:

12/11/2017 – 05:16

I write screenplays and poetry. Can anybody help with that? Please and thank you, Mandy (Suhre) Brown

↪️ Sadie Francis Skyheart replied:

28/08/2019 – 15:57

What Reedsy does for authors, ScreenwritingU does for screenwriters. If you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend!

Aleksandr says:

07/12/2017 – 14:59

At first glance, the recommendations are worth it to be read. You have perfectly divided everything into parts: grab the attention of the agent, write a brief overview. If our experience in such letters is not great, but you really want to get the result from such a letter, then it is better to go to a professional. Of course, is cool when you all know how. But sometimes, some things should be transferred to another, for the sake of result. You can write great articles like Neil https://neilpatel.com/blog/, or books like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_King. But in attracting the attention of the agent can be much more difficult. After tens of unsuccessful attempts, I went to https://writingpaper.org/. I was perfectly satisfied with the work, and I got several meetings with agents that I needed. So sometimes it is important to distribute your efforts correctly.

Cher says:

31/07/2018 – 20:46

Thank you, thank you! This post is extremely helpful!!

jturkish says:

27/01/2019 – 23:13

Sorry folks, aside from the advice to pander to the audience in the first lines of your query and manuscript (which I don't agree with. If your manuscript is good you don't have to pander, have some respect for yourself and your audience! Besides, Gone Girl and especially Twilight, aren't very good novels,) and that your Synopsis should read like a Query Letter (I was trained that a Synopsis or Outline is just that, your entire novel as distilled as possible, ex: a two hundred page novel described completely in less than five pages, a description.) This is the exact same advice I've had in every other publishing column I've ever read, and what I foolishly spent twenty thousand to learn in college. Unless you are an absolute grass roots beginner, save your eyes, your time, and your sanity, for reading Agent's biographies and expectations instead of reading this column. And if you are a grass roots beginner (looking at you college creative writing class kids out there, of whom this page seems aimed at), do another edit on your book, or write another novel entirely. Get some experience under your belt, enjoy being an artist, join your school's society of uber geeks, drink beer, talk about your favorite books, read and critique each other's manuscripts, talk about your favorite Simpson's episodes, meet some very interesting people and incorporate them in your novels; before spending all your free time trying to break into the subjective rat race that is writing at a professional level. Don't worry, the writing biz will still be here when you graduate.

janis hutchinson says:

25/06/2019 – 20:52

I wish you also had an article describing a nonfiction (mine is Christian) query letter. Is there one somewhere?

Chloe says:

07/08/2019 – 19:29

When should I be worried if the agent doesn't respond back?

↪️ Yvonne replied:

08/08/2019 – 01:43

Hi Chloe, agents are very busy, so it could take a couple of weeks to even two or three months to get a response. Some literary agencies have guidelines posted on their website on when to follow up on an unanswered query — check those, as it could be helpful.

Chloe says:

07/08/2019 – 19:30

When should be get worried if the agent doesn't respond back?

Sadie Francis Skyheart says:

28/08/2019 – 15:58

Excellent advice. :-)

B.L. Alley says:

04/11/2019 – 19:56

As usual, this advice is geared toward those who already have a foot in the door.

↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:

05/11/2019 – 14:14

Not really, to be fair... most agents will tell you that they will, at various points in the year, be looking through the "slush pile" for new authors to represent. These steps are designed to help totally unknown authors stand out from the countless authors who submit overlong, unfocuses query letters.

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