The Query Letter
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
A session with Steven Manchester
For years—at workshops and writers conferences throughout New England—I’ve worked with hundreds of aspiring writers. Besides trying to inspire them to have enough faith in their work to weather the storms of rejection we’re all forced to face, I’ve also shared five basic requirements that have helped me to get each of my books published:
The first requirement is to write a great book. Trust that this is not a practice in vanity; I’ve learned that if you don’t believe completely in your work then agents and editors won’t either.
The second is to write an absolutely amazing query letter.
The third is perseverance.
Fourth is perseverance.
And of course, the fifth and final requirement to getting your work published is perseverance.
As writers, we’ve all chosen a very challenging path. The Catch 22 in the publishing industry is that without an agent, you can’t secure a publisher; and without being published, agents won’t even take a look at your work. There are some cases where this might be true, but it’s been my experience that if you practice perseverance, do your research and polish your work until it shines then you’ve positioned yourself to enjoy success. Some people rely on luck, but I’ve always believed that when preparation meets opportunity you can make your own luck. One of our jobs as writers is to prepare ourselves for the right publishing opportunity.
One of the real tricks to success in this business is merely being seated at the table when the winning cards are dealt. I can’t tell you how many talented writers I’ve met that have succumbed to rejection and left the game altogether. Please don’t let that be you. Have enough faith in your work—your dreams—to stay the course.
Truth be told, I endured so much rejection on my first book that the box in which I kept the rejection slips outweighed the family cat (and he was a chubby boy). Thankfully, I’ve practiced my craft for many years, have become a much better writer and have learned just how crucial an effective query letter is within the process.
Basically, this refers to submerging yourself into the pool that you belong. If you write fantasy, it doesn’t make sense to pitch your work to agents who only represent romance writers—or to publishers who have never released a fantasy book in their company’s history. Go on-line, visit bookstores and make lists of agents and publishers who are clearly interested in your type of work. Most agents and editors will appreciate that you’ve made the effort and, as an added bonus, you’ll even discover which ones accept email submissions (making the process much, much more efficient). Just by knowing who you’re pitching to will reduce your rejection rate—and you’d be surprised at how many writers randomly submit their work to agents and editors who would never have any interest.
You’ve written the best book you can, have edited it three times—or until you’ve become blind to even the most glaring errors—and have solicited an editor to add a final coat of polish, right? You may have even gone the extra mile and shared it with industry professionals for potential pre-publication endorsements (and we all know this doesn’t refer to your mother or some friend who is obligated to love your work). So your book is done! Now comes the one most important page you’ll ever write—the query letter. Without it, only your mom and your friends will be lucky enough to read your amazing work.
The query letter is probably the most difficult piece you’ll ever write. Think about it; you have one single page to capture what has taken you tens of thousands of words to describe. And this one-page query letter has only a few precious moments to grip an editor or agent’s attention. But like it or not, it’s the first precious step in catching his or her interest and, hopefully, securing the sale. Without a powerful and effective query letter, your story—yup, those tens of thousands of words—will never be published or read.
That being said, it’s no surprise that your writing needs to be at its very best here; this is the point where you aim for greatness and accept nothing less (because that’s exactly where editors and agents are). In one page, you need to be clever, eloquent and intriguing while leaving your reader wanting more. Again, the query letter is nothing more than a sales pitch, so its only purpose is to cause an agent or publisher to request to see more of your work; a synopsis, full proposal, the first few chapters, or perhaps even the entire manuscript.
Before we get into the proper format of the query letter and a few examples to show you what has worked for me, I have to share one final observation: I’ve known writers who have applied painstaking effort into every paragraph, every sentence of their manuscript, but have blown through their query letter like they’re jotting down their Christmas list to Santa Claus. This is a really bad move. No, strike that—it’s a fatal move!
Your query letter—that measly one page—is your first impression to an agent or editor, for both the project you’re trying to sell, as well as your writing ability. It is your proving ground that you can write well and, trust me, no one will request your manuscript unless you can woo them here. Make one simple mistake and you’re all done (at least with that particular editor or agent). There’s just no room for it. Think professional, intelligent, concise and intriguing—and write four paragraphs like the life of your manuscript depends on it (because it does). Okay, you’ve had enough meat. Now let’s get to the potatoes.
Although you’ll be expected to adhere to each individual agent or editor’s guidelines, there is a definitive standard within the publishing industry on how to construct a query letter—which contains four paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, your biography and your grateful closing. Although there is definitely room to flex some creativity within this one-page pitch, you must not deviate when delivering the four paragraphs. Agents and editors don’t have time for gimmicks. They expect professionalism and the query letter is the first impression you’ll make as just that. However, there is some leeway as to how you put these four paragraphs in order. For example, the more experienced writer—with publishing credits or an established expertise in the subject they’re writing about—may choose to open with their impressive credentials. Others with less experience are better served to open with their hook, using one or two brilliant sentences to hypnotize the agent or editor.
The anatomy of the Query Letter:
FIRST PARAGRAPH: THE HOOK
The hook is a one-sentence (no more than two) tagline for your book. This is where you create that very first impression, so it’s imperative that you strike the right tone while immediately capturing the agent or editor’s undivided attention. It’s important that you don’t open like a used car salesman, with some cheap gimmicky sales pitch. Instead, you must capture your book’s undeniable marketability in a line or two that leaves your reader no other choice but to want more—and read on. And that’s the trick, right? If the hook is sharp enough, then the agent or editor will dive right into the second paragraph or mini-synopsis. And if that paragraph bowls them over then… You get the idea. Each paragraph should build on the next until the editor or agent replies, “Let me see the manuscript.”
Examples that have worked for me include Twelve Months:
Please consider my 63,000-word mainstream novel about (use TWELVE MONTHS)
PARAGRAPH TWO: THE MINI-SYNOPSIS
In my opinion, this is the most challenging paragraph of the query letter—but it’s also where your writing can shine the brightest. No one said it would be easy summing up your 65,000 word novel into a single paragraph but that’s just how much real estate you have to flex your muscle and try to get your book sold. Although you have no choice but to be succinct that doesn’t mean you can’t be vivid; we’re talking four or five sentences to make that agent or editor’s mouth water for more.
Essentially, in the second paragraph, you need to describe the plot of your story (or the concept of your nonfiction book). You should include the timeframe of your novel, as well as the scene setting. A brief depiction of your main characters should be followed by the conflict they must face and how they reach resolution.
In my experience, this one intriguing paragraph (around 125 words) is a tedious, time-consuming process that requires multiple drafts as well as honest feedback from objective peers. The good news is that this sales pitch—if strong enough—will be used throughout the entire publishing process; from securing the agent who will use it to sell the project to the publisher who will then use it to attract book buyers (your readers) You’ve seen these amazing paragraphs on nearly every book dust jacket you’ve read. In fact, it’s probably why you bought many of the books in the first place.
Examples that have worked for me include _________:
Throughout Operation Desert Storm, while America's technology fights to erase the poltergeist of Vietnam, Billy's body is invaded with its own ghost of torment. Amidst the daily chaos, he witnesses the senseless death of innocent children, the frailties of his own mortality and the realization that there is no glory in war. Then, as a lasting memento, he is brutally introduced to 'The Mystery Illness.' Inevitably, war would allow nothing less. Returning visibly whole to a proud and grateful nation, Billy is then carried away in the eye of his own storm. After helping to win the war he is forced to win the peace, but to do so he must now fight on two new battlefronts: First, the U.S. government and second, though far more fierce, within his own heart and mind. Embarking on this desperate quest for inner-peace, Billy sadly finds that the war is not through destroying. However, with pure faith and some help from several inspiring places, the miraculous answers lead to hope, love and acceptance.
PARAGRAPH THREE: YOUR BIO
For nonfiction, briefly detail your background explaining why you are the person who should have written this book. For fiction, list you publishing credentials, writing experience and education (if it applies to your work). In either case, keep it short. And be confident but not cocky.
Here’s a trick I’ve used: I’ve had excerpts (of the very work I’m pitching) published in literary journals, magazines—wherever. By doing so, I’ve been able to establish my work ethic to a potential agent or editor, while proving that I’ve already begun to build an audience for the work in consideration.
Examples that have worked for me include _________:
Non-Fiction PRISON BOOK (expert)
For nine endless years, I walked an unpredictable beat within the concrete jungle of a state prison. From there, I was sent to serve my country in the sand dunes of Iraq, but returning- internally destroyed, from Operation Desert Storm, the time had come to make a change.
As the published author of 6-5; A Different Shade of Blue and a Desert Storm Veteran, it is my hope to illuminate a human perspective on war, while revealing the true effects of Desert Storm's 'Mystery Illness.' In retrospect, not all war wounds are visible, nor are they all suffered on the battlefield. Yet, with perseverance, any obstacle can be overcome...the human spirit will allow nothing less.
And, later once I’d accumulated enough writing credits _____:
FINAL PARAGRAPH: YOUR CLOSING
When wrapping up your amazing query letter, make sure you thank the agent or editor for his or her time and consideration. If you’re pitching nonfiction, indicate that you have included an outline, table of contents, and sample chapters for their review. If you’re pitching fiction, be sure to mention that you’d be happy to send along sample chapters or the full manuscript upon their request (because you wouldn’t be pitching them the query letter if the MS was completed, right?)
Examples that have worked for me include _________:
Sincere thanks for your anticipated time and consideration. The (59,500 word.) manuscript is complete and can be immediately submitted upon your request.
Additional query letter requirements to keep in mind are:
Whenever an agent or editor’s submission requirements allow for it, send your query letter via email; this will speed up the process.
When sending your query letter via snail mail, enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Address your query specifically to an agent or editor (‘Dear Agent’ will never work).
Be sure to state the title of your book, as well as the word count and genre.
When pitching snail mail, use standard business letter format—including phone number, mailing address, and email address.
Solicit objective parties to proofread the letter for typos; again, there’s no room for a single mistake.
Never mail your query, requiring a signature; this will note paint you in a favorable light.
Finally, only include sample chapters if an agent or editor's submission guidelines allow for it.
Getting books published is a challenging business, for sure, but it’s not an impossible one. Getting published is sometimes nothing more than being at the right place at the right time under the perfect circumstances—once you’ve prepared yourself with a polished manuscript and pristine query letter. Remember, we very rarely get what we wish for but we do get what we work for—and perseverance is one of the greatest attributes in winning that race.
David McClain, a shy poet, enters the world with the promise of finding his soul mate. With heaven’s memories erased, his romantic quest eventually teaches him that the heart often sees clearer than the eyes.
Targeted primarily at the female audience, Gooseberry Island is a love story involving more than just one man and one woman. It is a heart-felt tale of love that reaches far beyond the boundaries of reason.
About the Author…
STEVEN MANCHESTER is the author of the #1 bestseller Twelve Months, Goodnight, Brian, The Rockin` Chair, and several other books. His work has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning and BET’s Nightly News. Three of Manchester’s short stories were selected “101 Best” for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.