Your query letter is an invaluable marketing tool that you will use to promote your book to literary agents and publishers. Since publishers are constantly receiving countless manuscripts, literary agents act as a filtering system for the publishing industry. The endorsement of a literary agent gives publishers a level of assurance that your material is worth their time to review it.
Some writers’ circles say that you will need to query 80+ agents before you can justify calling it quits. Each query letter should be personalized to the recipient and address how you see your work complimenting the roster of authors that the literary agent currently represents. The process is often long and taxing, and there is no guarantee that you’ll find representation. But, if you do, a literary agent will very likely be able to find a publisher for you and act as a champion for you and your book. Writing your query letter is the essential first step to obtaining a literary agent of your own.
While there is no magic formula for the perfect query letter (in fact, the more personalized each letter is, the better), there are certain components that should generally be included.
First and foremost, a query letter is never longer than one page. Within that page, you must be sure to include a hook (a one- or two-line attention-grabbing statement that conveys the essence of your book), a brief bio that describes your credentials as an author, an explanation of why you think your book is a good fit for the agent or publisher, and last but not least, basic info about your book (such as the title, genre, and word count).
In addition to these specific elements, be sure to personalize, personalize, personalize! Have you attended a workshop with the literary agent or one of their associates? Have you studied one of their published authors? Did you hear the president of their company speak at a conference? Include anything you can that shows you’ve researched the agent or publisher, that you know their work, and that your book would be a good fit within their existing markets and business model.
A book proposal is quite similar to a query letter, except that it is longer and generally includes a synopsis or outline of the book, chapter summaries, detailed author bio, marketing platform/strategy, and a market analysis. Book proposals are generally used for nonfiction books and can be submitted for a manuscript that is not yet complete.
In general, authors of fiction and memoir/autobiography will submit a query letter and authors of nonfiction will submit book proposals.
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Significant sections of your query letter can be sent to more than one agent or publisher; however, query letters are most effective when they are customized to your recipient. Most successful query letters include a section about how your manuscript relates to the distinct character or priorities of the agent or publisher you’re contacting.
Unless you’ve been specifically requested or directed to do so, don’t send your entire manuscript with your query letter! This is a classic pet peeve for agents and publishers and, more often than not, your unsolicited manuscript will end up in the recycling bin. Instead, be sure that your query letter or book proposal is attention grabbing and contains all of the necessary information about you and your book. Each agent will have specific submission requirements, which typically include a small writing sample from your book. If they like what they see, they’ll ask you to submit the entire manuscript for review.