Table with pen and paper, about to write a query letter

How to Write a Winning Query Letter for Traditional Publishers

The most important thing you’ll ever write isn’t your novel.

It’s not even your next novel, or your life story, or that email to your boss you can’t quite bring yourself to send.

It’s your query letter.

This short letter is the key to opening the door to all your dreams – and if you’re hoping to score a traditional publisher for your latest masterpiece, you need to know how to write one.

Traditionally, a query is a one-page letter sent to literary agents and publishers to get them excited about hearing more and potentially offering you a deal. This is your pitch, your advertisement to your most crucial reader: the one who will hopefully broadcast it for all the rest to see.

A query letter is traditionally around 300 words long, and it’s sent in lieu of your book. The goal is to get a request for the full manuscript, but this is no easy task. Agents and publishers are busy, and often swamped with incoming requests – so your query letter needs to be short, entertaining, and persuasive.

Essentially, you’re trying to squeeze your 75,000-word novel into a short blurb, leaving enough room to surround it with platitudes and information about yourself. Not a mean feat. You’ve also got to rave about how excellent your book is, without coming across like that gibbering, delusional parent who’s convinced their child is the best player on the team and everyone must know it.

It’s no wonder authors who have the fortitude to complete dimension-spanning sagas still quake in their boots at the thought of writing a query letter.

Luckily, there’s a tried and trusted formula to writing one – yet you should always keep in mind that even though swathes of authors have followed this exact formula, levels of success will vary. That’s because, in the end, it all comes down to the merit of the book you’re trying to sell. Even the greatest query letter is unlikely to spark the interest of the wrong agent or publisher. If it just isn’t for them, don’t take it personally. Move on to the next.

So, on to the letter itself!

Start by writing your address at the top of the page, aligned on the right. Next, type the publisher or agent’s address below that, on the left.

Your greeting should use the publisher’s name. Be certain you know this, and don’t be afraid to phone ahead to find out the name of the correct individual to whom you should send your manuscript.

Next, come the five paragraphs that make up the meat of your query letter.

Immediately, you should mention any connection you made with the publisher – maybe you did indeed phone ahead, and you can say you were pointed in their direction by their assistant. Perhaps you met them previously at a conference or attended a lecture they presented.

This is not the time to mention stalking them on Facebook and realizing your shared love of coin collecting. Don’t fake it: if you haven’t got a professional connection, just skip straight to the action.

Tell them the title and genre of your book, and include your word count. A publisher will want to know straight away what he or she is dealing with, so they can weigh up projected costs and get an immediate (if vague) sense of what the book will be like physically while they absorb the rest of the narrative details.

Then, give them a summary of your story – a very brief synopsis. Unlike a complete synopsis, it’s perfectly fine (and probably best) if you include a cliffhanger here to spark the publisher’s interest in finding out what happens. The only way they can satisfy this curiosity is to request a full synopsis and sample from you – and that’s a significant step closer to having a publishing contract on your desk.

Add a little about yourself, but keep it relevant. Impress the publisher with any awards you’ve attained, your academic credibility, social proof (social media follower counts, for example, can indicate that you have a ready-made audience available for your work), or related experience that informed your novel. Be brief here – two or three sentences is enough to impress, but brag on for too long, and your query becomes all about ‘me, me, me.’ And the publisher isn’t interested in you – they’re interested in what you’re offering will do for them.

Use crisp, easy-to-skim sentences that will help make the reader’s job easier. As you know, these are very busy people with a gargantuan pile of queries on the desk. They aren’t going to put up with yours if it’s too much effort to read.

For added effect, try to use a similar tone to that with which your book is written. This way, the publisher will be able to get a flavor of what the book will be like as a whole.

This is a short guide, but the points within are vital. As always, inform yourself of the submission guidelines for each individual publisher, and follow them to the letter. Some only accept queries by email; others might only accept them by physical post – and even then, they may only accept contact if it’s solicited in advance.

Arm yourself with the requisite knowledge, and you can make your pitch with confidence.


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