For 15 years, I was on the receiving end of query letters for books and magazine articles; today, I help writers perfect these documents, to increase the chance someone will look at their manuscript or book proposal more closely.
At its core, a query letter is a sales document, and so it’s meant to sell. Not explain, not argue, not defend, not plead. But opinions differ on the best possible sales approach in a query. These are the key areas where I see consistent confusion (and disagreement) on the best approach.
Personalization of the query letter
I used to be a big advocate for personalizing the query letter and showing the agent you’d done your homework—that your letter wasn’t being blasted indiscriminately to everyone listed in Writer’s Market.
Today, I’m less enthusiastic about this because so many forms of personalization have become floppy and unmemorable, e.g., “I’m reaching out to you because your website says you represent romance.” That kind of opening could be used with dozens and dozens of agents. It’s not really personalization as much as stating the obvious.
I encourage personalization in queries if you have something meaningful or specific to say, but throwaway lines aren’t going to impress the agent. They will have seen them a million times before; they blend right into the background of the letter and have little or no effect on the consideration of your work.
The query letter opening
Some say it’s essential to open with a catchy, one-sentence hook (sometimes called a log line) that sells the “sizzle” of your story. Others recommend opening with the facts: “I’m seeking representation for MY GREAT NOVEL, a medical thriller complete at 80,000 words.” Still others say: Dive straight into the story premise (at least for narratives): Who’s your character and what’s the problem they face?
Assuming you don’t have a better way to begin (more on this in a moment), I generally recommend beginning with the story premise for fiction. You can launch right into it, without explaining upfront that you’re seeking representation or that you’re writing in a specific genre—or adding any other prefacing comment. Believe me, agents know what you want when they receive your query; you don’t have to explain your purpose. Instead, just sell them. (For nonfiction queries, read this separate post on how to structure them.)
Sometimes it’s better to start the query with a bit about yourself, especially if you’re traditionally published, were previously represented by another agent, or have special qualifications or accolades. That may help an agent more carefully consider your material.
If you do have a kickass one-sentence pitch for you book, then sure, start the letter with that. But I wouldn’t bend over backwards to produce it, as not every book is a high-concept work that’s going to make jaws drop. Some agents may ask for this stupendous sales line at the beginning of your query, and if your hand is forced, do the best you can. Just understand those agents are looking for a very particular type of work, and not everyone will have that one-in-a-million hook that elicits a gasp within seconds of reading or hearing it. (But every author should be able to at least craft a decent, clear, and interesting log line, even it’s not fall-out-of-your-chair good.)
Appropriate query letter length
For ages, the standard query length was one page, single spaced. This is actually quite long (probably too long) for a fiction query in the age of email, when everyone’s finger hovers over the delete key. For fiction queries, I recommend writers shoot for 200-350 words, or somewhere around half a page, single spaced. I’ve seen some length recommendations of 150 words, and while that’s not wrong, it rarely works for epic-style novels (like science fiction and fantasy), where you need some time and space to establish the world the story takes place in.
Always remember: brevity is your friend in a query. The shorter the query, the less trouble you’re likely to get in. Plus, you don’t want agents lingering over your query; you want them to be reading the manuscript or proposal. You need to hit on the most salable aspects of your work, and avoid a book report that recounts the plot twists and turns, or introduces a cast of characters we can’t keep straight by the second paragraph.
Your bio in the query letter
For nonfiction, your bio statement is a near-requirement. Agents need to know something about your visibility to the target readership and your platform. However, if you’re querying for fiction, I consider it acceptable to simply leave out the bio statement all together if you have nothing to say about yourself or feel awkward and uncomfortable about your unpublished status, if that’s indeed the case. It’s exceedingly rare an agent would reject you for lack of bio, as long as they’re interested in your story.
However, agents do tend to be curious about your background, especially if it has informed the work (e.g., lawyers writing legal thrillers). But getting too far into such detail can be a distraction and discredit you if done improperly. E.g., this does not help: “I’ve never tried writing before since I’ve spent the last 50 years practicing medicine, but I’ve just finished my first novel about a doctor that shows what the job is really like, and I think it will be a bestseller.”
Information on author platform, marketing, or audience
Authors can be tempted to include their enthusiasm or skill for marketing and promoting the book to readers—or they elaborate on who the book will appeal to. Certainly your platform and target market is important for nonfiction pitches. Novelists, however, shouldn’t bother with platform and audience statements, as agents’ decisions are rarely affected by your online prowess, and are primarily driven by the quality and marketability of the work itself. (That said, if you’re a social media celebrity or Wattpad Star with millions of followers, lead your query with that!)
But what if agents ask for this market or platform information? First, make sure that you’re reading the guidelines closely. Nearly all agents want marketing and platform information for nonfiction authors, but not for novelists. Second, if the submission guidelines state they only want a query letter, it’s likely they seek clarity on your genre or category, plus basic information on your background and writing community activities. It’s rare for an agent to ask an unpublished novelist for a full and separate bio statement, marketing plan, or anything else that is more appropriate for a nonfiction book proposal. I would even go so far as to say that if an agent asks you to submit a bunch of marketing or platform information along with your novel query, you probably should look elsewhere for representation.
Sometimes authors hire a professional freelance editor to do a high-level edit, copyedit, or proofread on their manuscript; the motivations to do so are as varied as writers themselves. (I don’t think it’s necessary to do it before submitting, and in many cases it doesn’t increase your chances of a book deal—but that’s a different post.)
Regardless of one’s reason for hiring an editor, I don’t think it helps to say your manuscript has been professionally edited. This statement has become so common as to become meaningless—it doesn’t indicate the manuscript will necessarily be any better than one that hasn’t been professionally edited. Sometimes, in fact, it can indicate the manuscript isn’t very good. (Freelance editors can unfortunately do as much harm as good.)
Praise from others
Similar to the “professional editing” qualification, authors can be tempted to quote praise or positive reviews they’ve received from mentors, editors, critics, or published authors. It may make you feel good to have this feedback (and you should celebrate it if it was hard won), but this material isn’t helpful in your query unless the person is well known and trusted by the agent you’re querying. Even then, if they are well known by the agent, it begs the question: Why didn’t this person make an introduction to the agent on your behalf—that is, provide a referral of some kind?
In the end, the agent has to be enthusiastic and fall in love with your work—in addition to seeing a place in the market for it. They’re not going to rely on the opinion of a third party, and including praise from others can just as easily backfire rather than support your pitch.
You don’t have to state that you’re simultaneously cold querying many agents at once. It’s assumed. However, once you start sending out requested partial or full manuscripts, you should make it clear when an agent isn’t the only one considering the work at the time the pages are requested.
There is an element to query letter writing that is hard to perfect: the writer’s own voice and sense of confidence. I can help writers express story lines clearly and succinctly, draw out the voice of the characters, and keep the author out of trouble—but I can’t inject the writer’s own personality into these documents. (I’m not a ghostwriter!)
Sometimes a successful query breaks all rules and standards because it’s done in a way that’s charming and reflects something unique about the writer. The real challenge is knowing when your effect is truly charming or in fact annoying, and it’s a tough balance. You want to have some life in the query, but not at the expense of it backfiring and distracting from what it’s there to do: get the agent to request and read the manuscript.
Looking for more guidance on queries? I offer a Query Letter Master Class.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.