How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter
By Jennifer Kasius, Executive Editor at Kevin Anderson & Associates and former Acquiring Editor at Running Press (Hachette)
You only get one shot at making a first impression…no doubt you’ve heard that before.
The Query Letter is your big chance to show a potential agent (or publisher) that you have the “Right Stuff” for eventual publication. You have exactly one page to lure the reader in, to intrigue them enough that they ask for your full proposal and/or manuscript. Does this sound similar to the kind of letter you send to a Human Resources manager when seeking a big job? You bet. Does it also sound a little like speed dating? Yeah, that too. But don’t let those similarities turn you off. In fact, pitching your book can be a fun part of the process, one that can potentially have a big payoff. But the first step to any successful “sell” is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
For a moment, imagine being a literary agent. In any given week, you are inundated by the volume of queries you receive. Your in-box is full. You are looking for something that rises to the top—something that might resonate with the cultural trend du jour (for example, an in-depth guide on getting to “zero plastic”); or that promises to solve an age-old problem in a completely fresh way (say, a new system for managing your time and getting things done); or that clues the reader into something they didn’t even think they’d be interested in (e.g., How Leo Tolstoy’s novels can help us navigate our modern-day relationship problems).
If that agent represents memoirs, biographies, or works of narrative nonfiction, they may be searching for a work that shatters everyone’s preconceived notions: for example, a memoir about how an Ivy League scholar was raised by isolationist, survivalist parents (the premise for Tara Westover’s Educated). Or offers a unique account of a fan’s devotion to a beloved chef (Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia). Or how an obscure, underprivileged person had a tremendous effect on cancer research (Rebecca Skloots’ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). All agents/publishers are looking for that “what makes this different” nugget.
That said, agents don’t have time to mine for gold: that nugget of promise has to be readily apparent in your pitch. And your best chance for achieving this is to follow the basic architecture of a typical query letter, which is usually three paragraphs, and limited to a single page:
FIRST PARAGRAPH: Greeting/Tagline:
Greeting: The big no-no here is to send a mass email with the salutation “Dear Agent.” Any agent or publisher wants to know they have been singled out, that they are special (well, don’t we ALL want to feel that way? No one likes a generic greeting). So first, you’ll need to do your research on which agents are best for your particular kind of work.
Step #1) Look to the (free) resource of QueryTracker.net to see which agents are open to queries for your particular type of book (search for “memoirs” or “business” or your specific category).
Step #2) Go on an agency’s website and search their “About Our Team” section. There you’ll find each agent’s bio, along with some of the books they’ve represented, and what they’re specifically looking for. Obviously, don’t send a book on rocket science to someone interested in Young Adult mysteries.
Step #3) You can also look in the Acknowledgments sections of some of your favorite books (of the same category/genre). Most writers doff their cap to both their editor and agent in the Acknowledgments—after all, it’s always important to give credit where it’s due!
A single sentence like “your interest in hearing stories from marginalized voices” or “your work on [a favorite book] led me to think you may be interested in my memoir” are some examples of how you can add a touch of personalization to your opening paragraph. Perhaps you’ve even been lucky enough hear a particular agent speak at a writer’s conference or similar publishing event—be sure to mention that here. Your aim is to show your recipient that you’ve chosen them specifically for your query, and that you have a logical reason for doing so.
Tagline: This is probably the hardest part of the letter. This may bring you back to your 8th grade English class, when your teacher told you to nail down your “thesis statement” early in your research paper. It’s basically the same guideline: it’s crucial for your reader to immediately “get” what your book will offer—what is the promise?
For nonfiction works, you have the advantage of the subtitle, as it should nicely sum up what the book is about. Perusing some popular nonfiction bestsellers, I’ve spotlighted examples of intriguing subtitles:
“An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones” (James Clear’s Atomic Habits)
“How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” (Simon Sinek’s Start with Why)
“Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” (Cal Newports’ Deep Work)
“What the Rich Teach Their Kids about Money that the Poor and Middle Class Do Not” (Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad)
In some rare instances, a long, quirky subtitle can work too:
“Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun (Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project)
But even if you have the best subtitle, you’ll still have to elaborate a bit more in your Query Letter—and that can be done in a of couple ways. You can try a succinct tagline, or, as I like to call it, a “Think of this as…” line. It gives the reader an immediate snapshot of what your book is, and how it’s different. If the tagline is catchy enough, I can bet that it will be used by your agent to pitch to a potential editor, and that editor will then use it to pitch to their Editorial Board, and onward and onward. Working as an acquiring editor at a publishing house, I certainly appreciated a clever tagline. I looked at it as another tool in my arsenal for persuading the power-that-be to offer for a particular project.
So what’s the best formula for a killer tagline? You start with something that’s familiar (a book that everyone generally knows)—and then add a distinguishing feature, related to your book.
Depending on your particular genre, it could be something like:
Think of this as….
“How to Meet Friends and Influence People for the Digital Age”
“A What to Expect When You’re Expecting for new puppy owners.”
“Kitchen Confidential for the Gen Z generation.”
That said, you want to avoid actually comparing yourself to a mega-bestseller. If you’re writing a memoir about your hellish month on an Outward Bound excursion, you don’t want to say your book is the next Cheryl Strayed’s Wild…or if you’re writing a relationship book, don’t say you’re the next Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages. While well-known books provide great touchstones that readers will immediately understand—you want to tread carefully here. Limit any mention of a well-known “classic” to taglines—but don’t be presumptuous by saying you could follow in their footsteps.
Another way to create a “hook” in this first paragraph is to connect your book to a cultural moment or something in the news cycle. You can also talk about the audience who will benefit from your book. So, for example, if you’re writing a book for women on how to cope with the aftermath of divorce, you may start with a statistic:
One million couples get divorced every year in the United States, which leaves an estimated 400,000 women per year who are granted full custody of their children—often with severely reduced circumstances. My book targets those women who find themselves in financial and emotional freefall after their initial split, and answers the question, “What Now…?”
SECOND PARAGRAPH: Synopsis:
If you’re writing a prescriptive nonfiction book (self-help, business, health, or other “how to” categories), you want to get to the heart of the problem your book will solve, and how no other book on the market does exactly what you’re doing. Briefly outline your program or plan in a few sentences. Perhaps you have a three-tiered method for spotting hidden treasures at vintage stores; or borrowing from my earlier example, you’re covering the four phases of getting over a divorce. Boil down the essence of what you’re offering—and do it in a brief paragraph.
If you’re writing narrative nonfiction—specifically memoir and biography—be sure to cover all the touchpoints without giving too much away, and leave off with a little “tease.” Here’s an example of how to do that (I’m writing here as if Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a real person, pitching her memoir to an agent):
My story starts at Gateshead Hall, a seemingly idyllic manor house, where I’ve been taken in by my great aunt after having been orphaned at a young age. I’m treated cruelly by my cousins, and am soon sent away to an austere boarding school, where my fellow pupils and I endure strict punishment at the hands of our headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, who uses the Bible as justification for his abuse. I eventually make my escape by securing a post as a governess, where I meet my mysterious employer, Mr. Rochester, who I suspect is harboring some sort of secret. Little do I know that his secret wasn’t from a distant past, but rather something that is ever-present, lurking in the dark halls of his home, and will soon wreak more havoc in our lives than I ever could have imagined.
You get the idea…give just enough information that leads up to any “revelation” or high point of the story—but don’t show all your cards (for you fans of Jane Eyre, you’ll notice I didn’t say outright he was keeping his mad wife in the attic!).
THIRD PARAGRAPH: Your Bio (and, why you’re the best person to write your book).
You’ll wrap up your letter giving your recipient a glimpse into who you are—and why you’re qualified to write the book. Particularly in the case of prescriptive nonfiction, you’ll have to show that you’re an expert in your field—or, at least that you have a way to reach your audience. And it’s here I’ll dare utter the “P” word: Platform.
Of course, the “Platform” isn’t that daunting when you’re an actual expert in the field you’re writing in: if you’re a psychologist and you’re writing a book on psychology. If your book is on primates, and you’re a primatologist who has won all sorts of awards. But what if your credentials aren’t that neat and tidy?
For example, going back to my earlier example, say you’ve written a book for moms on how to get through their divorce (with guidance on co-parenting, finances, even post-divorce dating). Your pitch is that you’re not a psychologist or a divorce lawyer. Instead, you’re a mother who has been through the process herself, and is offering her hard-won wisdom. Fair enough. But it’s best if you can show you’ve already cultivated a connection with your potential audience. Perhaps you’ve started a newsletter on the subject, or you have a podcast? If so, be sure to include how many followers/subscribers you have. Have you done any speaking engagements? Or maybe your writing has appeared in an anthology, or you’ve received an endorsement from a reputable professional association. The point is to highlight anything that demonstrates you have a direct connection not only to your subject, but also to your audience.
If you’re writing a memoir, you may be saying, “but my only credential is that I can tell MY story.” Again, that’s fair enough. But be sure to include any publication credits or accolades you may have received for your writing. Or simply say how your unique perspective is particularly relevant at this point in time. For example, maybe your memoir is about your debauched time as a groupie on tour with an 80’s hard rock band, and they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary in the next two years, and they’ve experienced a renewed wave of interest in their work. Maybe there’s a biopic of the band that is debuting around the time your book could get published. Anything that can point to some sort of potential publicity angle for your story is a plus. Whether or not you have this type of ammunition for your rock band memoir, it’s important to make the case that only YOU can provide a unique window into the dynamics of that group, and paint a picture of that time period.
Closing: You can end your letter with a simple “I look forward to hearing from you.” And you can specify what you have in your back pocket, if they eventually choose to follow up: “A 75,000-word manuscript” or “A full proposal and two sample chapters is available upon request” is an acceptable closing. That said, it’s important that you do your homework and confirm each agent’s guidelines for submission. Each agent (or agency) has their own rules regarding how you should approach them. Some will direct you to submit only your Query Letter with the first chapter pasted in the email (many have a “no attachments” rule). Others direct you to another website, along with directions to fill out a specific form. So pay close attention and follow their rules. No matter the hoops they ask you to jump through, you’ll be armed with your three powerful paragraphs that will showcase your project’s best qualities, that will give you your very best shot at making that first impression—and (knock wood) be the catalyst for one of the most important connections you will make on your publishing journey.
Good luck, and have fun!
Jennifer Kasius has worked for nearly 30 years in the publishing industry, where she has acquired and edited several bestsellers including the #1 New York Times bestsellers You are a Badass by Jen Sincero and the vegan manifesto Skinny Bitch. As an editor at various imprints of Big-5 publishing houses (Hachette; Penguin Random House), she has acquired mainly in the areas of memoir, self-help, and lifestyle. She is currently an executive editor at Kevin Anderson & Associates.