How to Write a Query Letter: Nonfiction and Memoir

query letters for nonfiction

For years, I’ve offered a lengthy guide on how to write a query letter for a novel. When you’re pitching fiction to an agent or publisher through a query letter, your ultimate goal is to get your manuscript read. Therefore, the query is a sales piece, and it’s all about the art of seduction.

A query letter for a nonfiction book isn’t all that different from a fiction query: you’re still trying to get an agent or editor interested in looking at your work, but that may mean a book proposal and sample chapters, rather than the full manuscript. (Nonfiction is often sold on the basis of a proposal.)

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of complication when querying a nonfiction project; it’s not as straightforward and formula-driven as querying a novel. With a novel, you’re always trying to craft the perfect hook that encapsulates the essence of your protagonist and the conflict—and it doesn’t matter what type of novel it is. All novels are narratives with character, plot, setting, conflict, and resolutions (of some kind).

With nonfiction, you may be pitching:

  • a narrative about yourself (memoir)
  • a narrative about someone else (biography)
  • a narrative about some thing (broadly called narrative nonfiction; think Seabiscuit)
  • a prescriptive book (a book that helps the reader learn or do something better, such as a how-to, self-help or business book)
  • a reference book
  • an illustrated book

… and so on.

There isn’t a single formula that can cover all these categories or types of books. But for our purposes, to provide some kind of roadmap, we’ll split up nonfiction queries into two types:

  1. Narrative-driven nonfiction (including memoir, biography, and narrative nonfiction)
  2. Information-driven nonfiction

Before you begin the query process: you should have a finished and polished book proposal ready to go, which should include at least one sample chapter, if not more. It should be the best you can make it.

It’s also important that prospective authors give some thought to their author platform, or their ability to market and promote their book to an existing audience they can reach, without the publisher’s help, through online or offline activities. I discuss platform here. Your query and book proposal not only have to present an effective argument for why your book should exist, but also should reflect your authority and platform as a book author. (This is not the case for novelists.)

Query Letter Elements: Narrative-Driven Nonfiction

The query for this type of nonfiction may end up looking very similar to a novel query, especially if you’re writing a memoir. Include these elements, in no particular order (except the closing):

  • Personalization: where you customize the letter for the recipient
  • What you’re selling: genre/category, anticipated word count, title/subtitle
  • Hook: a compelling description of the narrative
  • Target readership: who will buy this book and why? (it cannot be everyone and anyone)
  • Your bio, platform and credentials to write the book
  • Thank you and closing

Query Letter Elements: Information-Driven Nonfiction

If you’ve written a book proposal (and you probably should), then your query letter is often a more condensed version of your book proposal’s overview or summary—those first 500 words (or first one to three proposal pages) should summarize the most important and salable qualities of your book. Your query and your proposal overview should both answer three questions: (1) So what? Why is this book unique, special or needed in the current marketplace? (2) Who cares? Who is the identifiable and specific audience who will spend $20 on this book? (3) Who are you? Why are you the best author for this book—what are your platform and credentials? It’s okay if your query and proposal include the same or similar language.

Whether or not you’re starting from scratch, include these elements, in no particular order (except the closing):

  • Personalization: where you customize the letter for the recipient
  • What you’re selling: genre/category, anticipated word count, title/subtitle
  • What makes your book unique—or its unique selling proposition
  • Target readership: who will buy this book and why? (it cannot be everyone and anyone)
  • Your bio, platform and credentials to write the book
  • Thank you and closing

What’s in the very first paragraph of the query?

Put your best foot forward—lead with your strongest selling point. Examples:

  • Personalization. Let’s say you’ve been vouched for or referred by an existing client of the agent’s—or if you’re querying a publisher, you might be referred by one of their authors. Put that first! Or maybe you heard the agent/editor speak at a conference or you read something they wrote that indicates they’re a good fit for your work. Mention it.
  • Hook. If you have confidence about the compelling nature of your narrative, start with that. Example: “When I was eighteen years old, I moved from my hometown in Oregon (population: 7,500) to live with the most powerful man in Hollywood and be a nanny to his three children.” (See the full query here.)
  • Platform or credentials. If your blog receives 100,000 visits a month, if you have an email newsletter of 20,000 readers who can’t wait to receive your updates, or if you’re a YouTube star, then you mention your powerful reach up-front. If you’re a previously published author, experienced professional, or highly regarded authority in your field, you can start with that. Example: “As the former CEO of three successful startups …”
  • Target readership. If your book will address a timely or emerging demographic, or if it solves the problems of a specific audience, then you can open by discussing the compelling market for the book: “Between 2000 and 2013, births by women ages 50 to 54 rose by more than 165 percent. This book tells the story of [or tackles the problems of] …”

The Most Difficult Challenge for Narrative Nonfiction: Pitching a High-Quality Story for a Big Enough Target Audience

For most narrative-driven nonfiction, the writing and storytelling matters as much as it would for a novel, and your hook plays an important role in conveying the quality of the story. But the publisher has to envision a sizable audience for that story, too. It’s instructive to look at the rejections that Rebecca Skloot collected for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now an award-winning work of narrative nonfiction. Skloot had trouble convincing editors that her story was marketable to a wide audience. Here’s what those rejection letters said:

  • “She has done a wonderful job presenting the personal and scientific dimensions of this unusual and often eerie story. Unfortunately in the end I really see this as an extended magazine article, and not a full book.”
  • “Skloot is a first rate stylist and explainer, so I’m sorry to say I can’t make an offer. I believe her story, though it throws a bright light on issues of race and science, is better suited to an article than book length.”
  • “I’m sorry to say that I’m not entirely confident that the approach taken here to tell us the story is the kind of treatment which will reach the broad nonfiction readership that we’re looking for.”
  • “Though the proposal breaches a timely and interesting topic in light of renewed interest in genetic research, it does not seem to be right for [our] list.”
  • “She’s a graceful writer with a real talent for presenting scientific material in a lucid and very human way. That said, though, I have to admit I can’t quite imagine how a book on this chapter in science might reach more than a very limited audience. To me, the real heart of the story is somehow too short-lived to create a strong sense of narrative tension, and its repercussions, I think, may not spark the interest of a wide enough readership for [our] list.”
  • “I think this is an amazing story and perhaps an important one to be told. What I’m less certain about is the eventual angle that Skloot will be telling it from. It is entirely clear that she is passionate about her subject matter; however, until more of the story unfolds, I remain uncertain of the power of the narrative.”

Some of the more common rejections you’ll encounter: this book should be a magazine article, the book’s audience is too small, or the story or approach is not distinctive or unique enough.

Writing a Narrative-Driven Hook That’s Not a Tired Storyline

Whether you’re writing memoir or nonfiction narrative, you need to boil down your story to these three key elements:

  1. Protagonist and her conflict
  2. The choices the protagonist has to make (the stakes)
  3. The sizzle

If you’re writing a memoir, then write the hook in first person—meaning you are the protagonist.

What does sizzle mean? It’s that thing that sets your work apart from all others in the genre, that makes your story stand out, that makes it uniquely yours. Sizzle means: this idea isn’t tired and hasn’t been done a million times before. When it comes to memoir, there are a lot of tired storylines out there. In this agent roundtable on memoir in Writer’s Digest in 2010, you can get a feel for what makes agents’ eyes glaze over:

  • “On some days it seems as though every therapist in the country who is dealing with addicts of one kind or another has told them to journal their recovery and then turn it into a book. Quitting booze or drugs is a good thing to do, but it isn’t the triumph of the human spirit.”
  • “I’m sick of dysfunctional family stories, but I’m a big fan of memoirs by people who have lived lives the rest of us only dream of.”
  • “Though books by cancer and disease survivors are prevalent, I find them very tough to sell to publishers unless the survivor has some kind of name recognition.”
  • “I try to steer [writers] away from, ‘I was born in a big/small town, and I liked listening to punk music, and I hated my mother and blahdee blahda blah blah.'”

Sometimes great hooks can be botched because there is no life, voice, or personality in them. Sometimes so-so hooks can be taken to the next level because they convey a liveliness or personality that is seductive. You want to be one of those seductive writers, of course.

The Most Difficult Challenge for Information-Based Nonfiction: Having a Sufficient Platform

You may have a killer concept or method to share with the world, but for information-based nonfiction, unless you have platform muscle, it’s unlikely that New York publishers will be interested in your book. Platform basically equates to visibility, or the ability to sell books. You should have visibility to the specific target audience you expect to buy your book. And it’s not enough to say you have visibility—you have to be able to point to it, quantify it, and show how you’re ready to lift off into the stratosphere of book sales.

A secondary challenge is having a unique enough selling proposition to set your book apart from the competition. You’re likely entering a crowded field, and especially if your platform is on the weaker side, you need to nail the concept and make it irresistible.

So how do you do this?

It’s very powerful to claim that your book will be the first and only book to do X. Or you could discuss how your book offers a compelling solution to a problem faced by your target audience. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What special features or content does your book offer?
  • What special research or investigation does your book include that can be found nowhere else?
  • What proven systems, methods, secrets, or lessons do you share?
  • How will readers benefit from your book? How will their lives change for the better?

How to Describe a Meaningful Target Audience

Most authors have trouble identifying their target audience—and the most common sin is to go way too broad. Here are two examples that miss the point entirely:

  • “Anyone who has children will be interested in this parenting book.” Really? Will parents of two-year-olds and parents of twenty-year-olds both be interested? Will rich parents and lower-class parents both be interested? Will urban and rural parents both be interested?
  • “Anyone who’s had a friend or family member with cancer will be interested in this book.” That probably describes nearly every person in the United States—this is not a meaningful target audience.

You should also avoid citing meaningless statistics, such as “Google returns more than 152 million search results for the term climate change” or “Amazon lists more than 10,000 titles in the environmental science category.” Neither of these figures indicate or describe the target audience for your work.

Here are examples of a meaningful target audience:

  • This book targets the 2 million corporate employees who quit their jobs every month.
  • This book targets degree-seeking students in the more than 500 creative writing programs in the United States, as well as those who have graduated within the last five years.

If you’re wondering if this is like a case of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, yes. Even inside publishing houses, there’s always disagreement about the ideal target audience for a book and its size.

Sometimes it can be helpful to point to other titles similar to your own, or competitive titles, to give an idea of the target audience you’re after. Just be careful: mentioning the latest New York Times bestseller or the latest book to be made into a movie won’t be very helpful. (Agents quickly tired of memoirs being pitched as the next Eat, Pray, Love or Wild.)

What You Should Mention in Your Bio

  • Publication credits or publishing history—especially if you’ve previously published any part of the work at a major website, magazine, or literary journal. (Your own site does not count unless traffic is in the six figures.) Be specific about your credits for this to be meaningful. Don’t say you’ve been published “in a variety of journals.” You might as well be unpublished if you don’t want to name them.
  • Any professional background or experience that’s relevant to the content of the book and your authority to write it
  • Any professional recognition or awards you’ve received—or positions that you hold—that give you visibility to influencers or to your readership
  • Relevant national or mainstream media attention you’ve received.
  • Any ongoing gigs that put you in front of the target audience (columns, podcasts, radio/TV shows, and so on)
  • The size of your current audience through online or offline media.
  • Any major personalities or influencers who have agreed to write a foreword or blurb your book

Many authors ask if they should mention any previously self-published work in the query. That’s totally up to you. Sooner or later this information will have to come out, so it’s usually just a matter of timing. Lots of people have done it, and it doesn’t hurt your chances. If you do mention it, it’s best if you’re proud of your efforts and are ready to discuss your success (or failure) in doing it. If you consider it a mistake or irrelevant to the project at hand, leave it out, and understand it may come up later.

Do not make the mistake of thinking your self-publishing credits make you somehow more desirable as an author—unless you have really incredible sales success, in which case, mention the sales numbers of your book and how long it’s been on sale.

Other Tips for Your Query Letter

  1. The appropriate length for a nonfiction query is somewhere between 1 and 1.5 pages, single spaced. Usually the shorter, the better. If you can send the book proposal along with the query, you should. In such cases, the query really ends up being a cover letter and doesn’t have to be labored over that much. (The good news: just about every agent/editor will flip through a book proposal if it’s in front of them.)
  2. If your book’s estimated word count is much higher than 100,000, you may be courting rejection before an agent has read a word of your proposal or manuscript. Eighty thousand words is the industry standard for a narrative nonfiction work. Information-based nonfiction varies tremendously, but still, high word counts will raise a red flag for most publishers and agents.
  3. You don’t have to state that you are simultaneously querying. In today’s environment, everyone assumes this. I do not recommend exclusive queries; send queries out in batches of three to five—or more, if you’re confident in your query quality.
  4. Don’t mention your “history” with the work (e.g., how many agents you’ve queried, or how many near misses you’ve suffered, or how many compliments you’ve received on the work from others).
  5. Resist the temptation to editorialize. Don’t directly comment on the quality of your work. Your query should show what a good writer you are, rather than telling or emphasizing what a good writer you are. Editorializing is whenever you proclaim how much the agent will love the work, or how exciting it is, or how it’s going to be a bestseller if only someone would give it a chance, or how much your kids enjoy it, or how much the world needs this work. On the flip side: don’t criticize yourself, or the quality of the work, in the letter.
  6. There’s no need to go into great detail about when and how you’re available. Simply put at the bottom of your query (unless using letterhead) your phone number and e-mail address. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope for snail mail queries.
  7. Do not introduce the idea of an in-person meeting with the agent or editor. Don’t say you’ll be visiting their city soon, and ask if they’d like to meet for coffee. The only possible exception to this is if you know you’ll hear them speak at an upcoming conference—but don’t ask for a meeting. Just say you look forward to hearing them speak. Use the conference’s official channels to set up an appointment if any are available.
  8. Email queries can lead to faster response times. However, I often hear writers complain that they never receive a response. (Sometimes silence is the new rejection.) This is a phenomenon that (regrettably) must be accepted. Send one follow-up to inquire, but don’t keep sending emails to ascertain if your emailed query was received.
  9. While you should list your website or blog as part of your contact info, there’s almost never any need to tell agents in the body of the query to visit your website for more info. Most of them will Google you anyway and check out your online presence to get a sense of how you might be to work with and if you have a meaningful platform.

Looking for query letter examples?

I keep a list of example query letters at my book-related site, The Business of Being a Writer.

How to Identify Agents to Query

  • PublishersMarketplace (for in-depth info on agents and publishing deals, costs $25/month)
  • Don’t forget to look at agency websites to help you customize your queries and submissions for each agent appropriate for your work
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