A good query letter is not difficult to write if you remember to leave out the irrelevant. Over the years, as a literary agent and someone who publishes other authors’ articles on my websites, I’ve seen some serious mistakes in query letters that have made me quickly think otherwise about publishing an author’s work. Following are a few tips on what you should and should not include in a query letter.
Do not offer unnecessary information: If it isn’t relevant to your book or article’s topic, I don’t need to know it. Unnecessary information can include where you live, all the places you have lived, how many children you have, your marital status, why you haven’t published anything yet, anything personal like your divorce, how long you have been writing, your religious affiliation, and on and on and on. I don’t need you to tell me about where you live-I can get that from the return address on the envelope. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, I don’t need to know about your children, your divorce, or what religion you are. If you are writing an article about religion, it might be relevant to tell me about your religion, but that is not necessarily always the case. If you are writing a children’s book, telling me about your children and how they love your book is not going to convince me-of course your children love Mommy’s book.
Do not try to wow me with your experience: I don’t need a list of every publication you’ve written for and the name of every article published. Most publishers are not impressed by degrees, careers, or experiences because while those things may show that you are an expert in your field, they do not necessarily prove that you know how to write well.
Do not tell me what is wrong with your book: I can’t believe how many people will list all the publishers who have already rejected their books. If your book wasn’t good enough for them, why would it be good enough for me? You want to present your book in the best light possible so don’t mention the rejections. Similarly, don’t in any way belittle yourself or your book such as “I know the opening chapter is not that interesting, so I hope you will help me to make it more intriguing.”
Do not send query letters with typos in them: Proofread, proofread, and proofread. If your query letter has punctuation and grammar errors, trust me, most likely, so does your manuscript, so you’re hurting your chances. Yes, publishers have editors on staff, but they want to begin with someone who can write well and turn him or her into a great writer. Mediocre writers who can’t spell take a lot more effort to turn into great writers and the competition is fierce.
Do not tell me your terms for publication: It is up to the publisher to offer the terms. For example, don’t make the mistake of saying, “I am offering you the North American printing rights at a ten percent royalty while I retain the right to publish the book in Europe. Please note that my work is copyrighted.” The publisher and you will negotiate once the publisher decides to publish your book. Offering terms upfront is like going to an employer and telling him how much you want to be paid before the job interview. Stressing the copyright of the work is a defensive turnoff that makes it sound like you think the publisher is going to steal your work.
Write an engaging opening sentence or paragraph about your book: Keep the opening brief, and focus on the conflict, suspense, or cliffhanger. A bad opening would be: “Laura lives with her mother and sister in South Dakota. She is eleven years old when her Uncle George comes to visit. He brings her a present from Australia. At first, Laura is shy around Uncle George but she soon warms up to him when she sees what the present is.” In other words, we don’t need a blow by blow description of the story’s opening. Write a brief cliffhanger or something that evokes mystery or suspense, such as: “Eleven-year-old Laura McAdams never knew she had an Uncle George until he showed up on her family’s doorstep one day with a gigantic present for her. Her curiosity over why her parents never told her about this mysterious uncle was only superseded by what could be in the box that was as large as her. When it turned out to be a baby kangaroo, accompanied by an invitation from her uncle to travel with him to Australia, Laura began the adventure of a lifetime, even though her parents refused to let her go.” The second example raises all kinds of curious questions for readers: Why don’t Laura’s parents like her uncle? How does she end up going on the trip if her parents don’t want her to go? Is the baby kangaroo going along on the trip also?
Tell me briefly about your writing background: If you have never published anything, no need to mention it; your silence implies it. No need to mention you’ve written six novels all of which have been rejected and you have the ninety-six rejection letters to prove it. If you don’t have an impressive writing background, leave out that information. If you have written for a newspaper or a magazine, or have published or self-published other books, go ahead and mention them briefly. For example: “For the last six years I have written a weekly column for the local newspaper about parenting, and I have previously published my novel, Martha’s House, with Writers Press.”
Be clear who will be the book’s audience: No publisher wants to hear that your book will appeal to readers of all ages. The publisher wants to know that your target audience is girls ages twelve to sixteen, or divorced middle-aged men. To think everyone wants to read your book is to make it obvious you know nothing about the publishing industry. Remember, you, not the publisher, will be primarily responsible for marketing the book, so if the publisher is going to take the time and spend the money to publish your book, it wants to know the book is marketable and who is going to buy it.
Always be polite and professional. Do not demand anything from the publisher, such as “I wish to hear from you no later than May 1st or I will find it necessary to look for another publisher.” Instead, simply end the letter by stating, “Thank you for your consideration. If you require any additional information, please let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.” You will have your contact information on the letter-mailing address, email address, phone number-if the publisher feels the need to contact you.
A good query letter is necessary for getting a publisher’s attention. Before you can sell your book to the public, you need to sell it to the potential publisher so it needs to be as professional and attention-grabbing as possible. Spend time on it. Rewrite and rewrite it until it is as perfect as you can make it, and don’t forget to proofread it multiple times. Good luck!
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.