Increase Your Odds of Getting Published with a Killer Query Letter.

A query letter post by Henry on December 12, 2008

Dont send a Query Letter if you made stoopid mistakes

You’ve finished that manuscript you’ve been working on. The perfect story/article/column/whatever it is you’re writing.

You’re ready to send it out for the world to see. There’s only one problem. The publisher or agent is only going to glance at for a moment before tossing it on her to-look-at-eventually pile.

A month or so goes by before she gets around to reading it. By that time she’s had to go through the pile of material that’s been thrown on top of yours. If you’re going to get her beyond the first paragraph after reading 10 other manuscripts, you’re going to have to work fast.

The most common mistakes- the ones that are sure to make an editor or agent skip your writing, are easily avoidable. Poor spelling and grammar, crazy fonts, ignoring Submission Guidelines- you know better than that.

If you don’t, you probably need to go back and practice before you’re ready to submit. There’s no shame in it and the writing isn’t wasted. It’s a learning experience. The next attempt is always better.

But your copy is edited well, you’ve fixed the grammatical errors hiding in the dark corners of your text and you’ve run spell check… twice.

That gives you a much better shot- but it’s still just that. A blind shot. You’re hoping that the reader is going to select your writing out of a stack of names she doesn’t know.

Move to the top of the Pile

You can make sure your piece is read. Better yet, you can make sure that the reader already likes you by taking one simple step. Submit a good query letter, no- make that a great query letter.

Write a query letter that is so fascinating to the editor or agent that she has to read through it. Make her think, “Yes. That’s something I’m interested in.”

Presto- she’s asked you for your writing. All because you asked her to ask you for the writing.

To get that reaction, you’re going to have to become a salesman. This turns a lot of writers off. They want to write books or stories, not sales copy. But it’s a necessary task and it’s good practice for promoting yourself later.

Agents and editors love being sold on material. They’re some of the pickiest readers out there and they know it. If they get excited about a story, they can get other people excited about it, too.

Constructing a Query Letter

There are 5 parts in a good query letter: the headline, the picture, your bio, the pitch, and the call to action.

1. The Headline- It’s a fundamental marketing technique but most writers skip it in a query letter. Most writers also write horrible query letters.

To make your letter stand out you need to catch her eye right away. Before she even gets into the body of your letter, she should be interested in you.

A good headline has three elements.

It should be Functional, Specific, and Unique.

For example, if you were trying to find an agent for Harry Potter the headline might be-

How can an 11 year-old wizard conquer a powerful dark lord…when he doesn’t even know he’s a wizard?

You’ve covered the basic story making it functional
You’ve given specifics. An 11 year-olds battle against an evil wizard.
And it’s a completely original idea (it was when J.K. Rowling was looking for a publisher).
You have her attention. She’s curious and has to continue into the body of your letter.

2. The concept- You have her attention but she’s only reading to satisfy her curiosity. This is the easiest place to lose her.

Don’t tell her your going to be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or James Patterson. Editors and agents both have the same reaction to that kind of claim.


Then they put the letter down.

Think of the concept as a continuation of the headline. You need to make her believe that you can sell that many books but you can’t tell her that you will. You’ve worked so hard to “show not tell,” for the length of your manuscript. Don’t abandon the practice here.

Plant a picture in their mind. The beginning of Ms. Rowling’s query letter would have look something like this.

Dear [insert name here],

The night of his 11th birthday, Harry Potter is visited by an enormous man who makes an outrageous claim. “You’re a wizard,” he tells him. “And your parents were murdered by the most powerful dark wizard of all time...”

Continue to give a general, image-packed concept of your story. The idea is to fire up the editor or agent's imagination. The concept should be as short as you can make it while including the setup, the climax, and the resolution.

3. The Bio- Unless you’ve already made some big sales or are someone the editor knows, you want this section to be third. If you put it after the salutation, you’ve wasted your headline by distracting the reader.

Be brief in your bio. She doesn’t want your life story. She just wants your name and any credentials that you might have. If you don’t have any writing credentials, don’t make any up. It will ruin the relationship that you’re trying to develop.

In most cases, an appropriate bio would read-

My name is [your name] and I’ve written a [novel/ book/ short story] called [your title].

4. The pitch- You need to tell her who’s going to buy your book. You may be writing for the sake of art, but art is powerless if no one sees it. Keep it short and make sure you identify a specific target.

This story is aimed at the young adult/ mystery / thriller/ literary reader.

5. The call to action- It’s an easy to miss aspect of the query letter. Tell them what to do. It closes the letter in a professional, action-oriented way.

Please write to me with the SESA (make sure you include one if you want to be contacted by mail) envelope included to request chapters or the full manuscript. You could also contact me at or call (555) 555-5555.

She’ll appreciate the options and that you made sure it wasn’t going to cost her a cent.

Keep In Mind

Don’t let your ego get in your way. No matter how good of a query letter you wrote, don’t think you “deserve” anything from an agent or editor. They don’t work for you and you don’t work for them. You’re looking for a partnership that will benefit both of you.

If you want to learn more about getting published, there's a great course I reccommend called,"The Secret Rules Of Publishing."

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