How to Write and Submit a Query Letter (Fiction)
By Elizabeth Bruce, former Senior Editor at KAA and acquisitions editor for Picador (Macmillan)
This may sound shocking, but the most important stretch along the path to publishing your novel isn’t necessarily the drafting process (although that’s definitely important too): it’s writing the query letter, your one chance to catch the eye of a literary agent or acquisitions editor and convince them that investing in you and your manuscript will be worth their while.
Writing a query letter is part art—after all, you’re distilling both your own credentials as an author and an entire book-length manuscript into 300 words of what is, essentially, convincing sales copy (more on that later)—but it’s also part science, and the eight years I spent acquiring a range of upmarket and literary fiction for Picador, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, taught me both. Acquisitions editors and literary agents each have very clear expectations for what they want to see in a query letter, and while you want yours to impress, you also want it to conform to those standards.
So, what exactly are the publishing industry standards for a query letter, you’re probably wondering, and what should I do to ensure my submission is taken seriously?
In a landscape where there are literally hundreds of agents to choose from—and just as many independent “experts” offering their two cents—the query process can feel overwhelming. But, remember, there is a methodology to this, and as a former Big Five acquisitions editor, I wanted to draw from the many years I’ve spent on the receiving end of queries to help you master the science—and the art—of the query letter for yourself.
How to Write and Structure a Compelling Query Letter
Every query letter for a work of fiction has six basic components: the greeting, the introduction, the hook, the summary, the bio, and the conclusion. Each of these is extremely important—your query letter should be no more than 300 words long, so not one of those words can go to waste—and, because of this, we thought we’d walk you through each component, step-by-step.
Otherwise known as the salutation, the greeting is where you address the recipient—which seems obvious enough, I’m sure, and because of this, it can be easy to get careless; I am a cisgender female, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called “Mister” because my surname is Bruce. You don’t want to put your foot in your mouth before you’ve even begun to make your pitch, which is why I always recommend addressing the recipient simply by their first and last name. (Even as someone who identifies as female, “Ms.” and “Mrs.” have always made me cringe.)
The first one to two sentences of your query letter, the introduction is your opportunity to give the recipient a snapshot of you, your credentials, and your reasons for querying them. If you admire an author on their list, let them know that this has been a factor in your decision—or, better yet, if you know that you and the recipient share a mutual acquaintance, reach out to that person and ask if you can mention their name and if they’d be willing to make a referral.
The more specific you can be about your interest in working with them, the better. If you’ve won awards for a short story or any self-published work of fiction, take advantage of the introduction to mention these too. While you will wrap up your query letter with a brief bio, you also don’t want to leave anything that recognizes your writing chops or your ability to connect with your readership until the very end.
The hook will make up the remainder of the first paragraph of your query letter, and it is arguably the most important sentence you will write: It’s designed to create intrigue while also positioning your book within the marketplace, demonstrating that what you’ve written will resonate with already established audiences, but that it’s also unique.
How does one do that? This is most successfully accomplished by using comparable or competitive titles to position your novel within your chosen genre. And they don’t necessarily have to be books either: One of the best query letters I ever received was submitted to me by an agent on behalf of their client, who was a cross-genre novelist, and she described that author’s debut as “Inception meets THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE.” You can bet that agent got my attention immediately, and her hook told me three things: that this novel was highly commercial with the potential to resonate with huge audiences, that it was high-concept sci fi with a time-traveling element and the pacing of a thriller, and that it was also a love story. That one phrase told me all I needed to know, and it was strong enough that it gave me something to use when I met with my editorial board. Suffice it to say, that meeting went extremely well, and this became the first title I preempted—and all because of that hook. Make yours strong enough for the recipient to form an opinion about your novel right then and there, and your manuscript will make it to the top of their submission pile.
Not every novel lends itself to this sort of sure-fire hook, though, and that’s okay; so long as you’ve sufficiently piqued the recipient’s interest, a well-written summary will complete the sales job. I keep using the word “sales” because the summary is basically marketing copy, in the same way as flap copy or an Amazon product description—and that’s exactly how you want the summary to sound. Your description of your novel should be voicey (meaning, it should reflect the tone of your novel) and succinct. Depending on the length of your bio, you’ll likely only have 100 or so words to work with here, so you don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to include every major plot point. Do that, and your summary will start to sound convoluted; meanwhile, the recipient of your query letter will start to lose interest. If the plot of your novel is already quite complicated, focus on the characters and setting up the story (which is exactly what that agent did). The summary isn’t meant to tell the recipient everything about your novel: It’s meant to make them want to read it.
Here’s where you get to do a bit of bragging: The last truly substantive paragraph of your query letter should cite your credentials and establish your author platform. You’ve likely heard the term “author platform” mainly in the context of conversations about nonfiction, but in an environment where millions of books are being published annually and through increasingly fewer sales channels—and when there are fewer traditional media outlets through which to publicize them—platforms have become something of a necessity for fiction writers too. If you’re active on Twitter and Instagram and have a million social media followers, you should absolutely make sure to mention this (while also linking to your accounts). The bio is also the place to discuss your membership to any professional organizations that are relevant to the publishing industry, any relevant work or education experience (such as Master of Fine Arts degree or a teaching or mentorship position), and any grants, fellowships, or awards you might have received. If you’re just starting out on your writing journey and feel as though you don’t have much to highlight, then use your bio to discuss the ways in which you’re planning to build your credibility (e.g. if there’s a writer’s workshop you plan to attend, then this would be the place to name it). No career is built overnight—especially not a literary one—and if your platform isn’t where you’d like for it to be, take this opportunity to show the recipient that you’re willing to put in the work.
Now it’s time to put the bow on your query letter, only this one doesn’t have to be anything fancy (nor should it be). The final sentence or two of your query letter should be used to share the length of your novel (for instance, perhaps you’ve completed a full manuscript of approximately 80,000 words), to mention any requisite materials that you’ve attached to your query letter (such as the first fifteen pages of the manuscript or whatever material the recipient may have asked to view initially), and to let the recipient know that you look forward to hearing from them. All that’s left to do now is submit and wait—which is the really hard part. There are a few things you’ll want to ensure you do first in order to maximize your chances of receiving a positive response.
Check These Boxes Before You Submit Your Query Letter
The query process isn’t without its pitfalls. The good news is that it’s easy to avoid them, and that starts with making sure you’ve followed your recipient’s specific guidelines to the letter.
All reputable literary agents and publishers have very precise instructions for querying that are often unique to their agency or publishing house (and if they don’t, then that’s almost always a red flag). It’s imperative that you follow these instructions exactly, and for a number of reasons—the first being that you don’t want to give the recipient of your query letter an excuse to ignore you.
During the busiest weeks of the year—typically those leading up to international rights fairs such as Frankfurt and the London Book Fair—I’d receive as many as fifteen fiction submissions a week. All of these were either agented or submitted to me by publishers in other countries. In other words, these vetted manuscripts had already made it through the first “gate” of the traditional publishing process, so you should assume that, if you’re querying an agent, they will be receiving far more than fifteen manuscripts a week, and that’s already a hefty workload. (Indeed, author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford has noted that it isn’t uncommon for agents to receive 5,000 to 20,000 queries per year.) For better or worse, agents and acquisitions editors are still human, and it just isn’t possible for them to read every submission in their inbox from beginning to end, which is why following instructions—and taking care to make sure that both your query letter and any sample pages are free of mistakes and typos—is so crucial.
Not only does the failure to do so create an impression of carelessness or indifference (neither of which are qualities agents and editors look for in an author), but it can give the recipient a reason not to consider your manuscript. For instance, if an agent asks you to paste sample pages into the body of your query, they’re probably doing so because they rely on their commute to perform initial evaluations. And if their commute is the only time they have to make those assessments, then the sample pages you instead attached as a Word document probably won’t get read. Don’t give the recipient of your query letter a reason not to read yours.
Many literary agencies will also explicitly instruct potential clients not to query more than one agent within their organization at a time. If you’re interested in working with a large to mid-size agency with several agents you think might be a fit for your novel and aren’t sure which one to query, try taking a look at their recent acquisitions on Publishers Marketplace, or even enlist the help of a professional editorial or consulting service, most of which will also be happy to provide feedback on your query materials and help you rewrite them as needed. If you’ve made an effort to personalize your query letter, make sure it’s just that: personal. For example, if you’re querying someone who acquires or represents a range of upmarket genres, you don’t want to begin by expressing your admiration for a New York Times-bestselling author of contemporary spy thrillers when you yourself are a historical novelist. That just shows carelessness, and it can also signal that you haven’t spent very much time thinking about why that agent or editor might be a good fit for you. Make sure they actually specialize in the genre you’re writing in—and if you don’t have a genuine connection to the person you’re querying, it’s best not to mention anything at all.
So, to recap, before you hit “send” on your query email, definitely take a moment to consider the following:
- Does the agent or publisher I’m submitting to have specific query requirements, and have I followed them to the letter?
- Is my query letter and/or writing sample perfectly polished and free of typos?
- Am I about to query more than one agent from the same literary agency, and is that something the agency will object to?
- Do the agents I’m querying have a successful track record of placing novels within my genre (and do they even represent it)?
- Do I feel confident in my approach, and should I consider enlisting professional help?
You’ve come this far on your writing journey, and checking these boxes will help to ensure that you’re giving yourself and your novel every chance to land the literary agent and book deal of your dreams.
Elizabeth Bruce is a one-time Senior Editor and frequent KAA collaborator with a list of over a dozen New York Times bestsellers. With a degree and publishing certification from Columbia University, Elizabeth connected with KAA following stints at W.W. Norton and Grove Atlantic; she was also an acquisitions editor at Picador—a leading fiction imprint of Macmillan Publishers—where she acquired and edited a wide-ranging list of national bestselling and critically acclaimed fiction and nonfiction, primarily by first-time authors. This includes Robin Sloan, C.E. Morgan, André Aciman, Brigid Schulte, Terry Tempest Williams, John Darnielle, Héctor Tobar, and Alan Glynn (author of The Dark Fields, the basis for the Limitless franchise).