How to Write a Query Letter for a Literary Agent in Traditional Publishing

How to write a query letter

How to write a query letter.

You’re in the process of writing a book, and you’ve decided to try to get it traditionally published.

Most publishing houses won’t work directly with authors, so in order to get your book traditionally published, you need to get a literary agent to represent you.

Your agent’s job is to get your book in front of editors and negotiate your book deal as well as any other rights (foreign, film, etc.).

The first step landing an agent is to write your book (if you’re writing nonfiction, you would write a detailed book proposal). The next step is to compile a list of literary agents whom you may want to work with.

Once you’ve gathered a list of agents to contact, you can start working on your query letter.

What is a Query Letter?

A query letter is a one-page, single-spaced cover letter (or letter of introduction) that contains a summary of your project and your author bio. The goal of the query letter is to entice a literary agent to read the attached material or request either a partial or full manuscript.

Before you write your query letter, do as much research as possible about query letters. This article is an overview to writing a query letter. If any part of the process becomes difficult for you, dig deeper, pick up a book on query letters, or consult a specialist.

Basic Outline for a Query Letter

There should be six parts to your query letter, including the salutation and valediction:

  1. Salutation: Also called the greeting, the salutation often starts with Dear… Make sure you address the agent by name; do not use To Whom It May Concern.
  2. Opening: The introduction of your letter should identify your book’s genre, word count, and any other important details.
  3. Synopsis: This is not a full synopsis–remember, the cover letter is only one page, so the synopsis has to be tight. Include a quick but compelling overview of the plot, establish the setting, and describe the main characters. You should also identify the core conflict and describe the resolution.
  4. Credentials (bio): Include your writing credits, education, or experience. If you have a lot of clips, bylines, or publishing credits, only include the most relevant or prestigious.
  5. Closing: This is where you thank the agent for taking the time to consider representing you and offer to send sample chapters or your full manuscript.
  6. Valediction: Some common terms used in the valediction are Regards, Thank You, and Sincerely (followed by your name).

How to Write a Query Letter

Here are some tips to guide you as you write your query letter:

  • No matter how elaborate your story is or how much you want to tell the agent about yourself, keep it to one page. Do not bend this rule. Be clear, concise, and professional.
  • Don’t use gimmicks. Colored paper, weird fonts, and other attempts to stand out from the crowd will backfire. Agents have to get through a lot of query letters, and they know what they’re looking for. Be professional.
  • Make sure you adhere to each agent’s submission guidelines–no exceptions!
  • Condensing all this information into one page is going to be tricky. Give yourself plenty of time to refine and revise your letter. When it’s done, have a few friends (with strong writing skills) take a look. Polish it until it’s perfect.
  • Do not mention your failures or unpublished manuscripts (except the one you’re pitching). Yes, you learned from those experiences, but a prospective agent doesn’t want to hear about them–at least, not yet.
  • Do not mention that you’re self-published unless your self-published book was successful and generated loads of revenue.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being humble, but a query letter is not an appropriate place for self-depreciation.
  • You don’t need to tell the agent your work is copyrighted, and you don’t need to include any kind of copyright mark on the document. Agents are professionals and know your work is copyrighted the instant you created it.
  • Do not talk about how you’re going to be the next J.K. Rowling. Do not suggest your book belongs in Oprah’s book club. This kind of arrogance will come off as an illusion of grandeur.

Additional Resources

Here are a few more resources that you might find useful:

Have you ever written and submitted a query letter to a literary agent? Was it successful? Did your book get published? Share your experiences with traditional publishing by leaving a comment.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


2 Responses to “How to Write a Query Letter for a Literary Agent in Traditional Publishing”

  1. Tara says:

    What if you are a first time author and you have not taken any special writing courses? Would I have to skip the credentials?

    • I think the idea is that you should have some writing experience accrued by the time you are ready to submit a book to an agent. It doesn’t have to be a class; it could be a blog where you cite the number of readers you have. If you have absolutely no experience whatsoever and still want to submit your work, I suppose you’d have to skip that section.