Writing Query Letters (or, how to be touched with a bargepole)

Queries are simply letters which summarise your book and ask if an editor or agent is interested in reading it. Some people want a query letter alone and will request (or not) three chapters and synopsis on the back of it; others ask for the query letter plus three chapters and synopsis. (Click here for how to write a synopsis.)

Aspiring authors get pretty ground down by this stuff so herewith a few tips.

Firstly, this is honestly not as complicated as people make out. It’s just a basic letter so the agent/editor can see if the book might be appropriate for their list, and also if the author falls into the category Do Not Touch This Person With a Bargepole (‘bargepoles’ for short).

Compulsory bits

1) Read the guidelines of the publisher/agent you’re subbing to and follow them. There is no point at all in you querying an agent or editor who doesn’t handle your type of book, so don’t mess about. If you don’t follow instructions, you flag yourself as the kind of person who can’t follow instructions, i.e. a bargepole. If there are no guidelines, just do a standard letter as follows.

2) Address the letter to the person by name, and formally. Dear Mr Jones, Dear Ms Patel. If the editor is Alex Smith with no photo and no indication of gender, then Dear Alex Smith or phone the company to find out how they like to be addressed. Don’t guess, and don’t call them Dear Alex if you don’t know them. Consider if you’d like to be addressed as ‘Dear Agent’ or ‘To Whom It May Concern’.

3) Contact details. I wish I didn’t have to say ‘include your contact details’ but I do. If you have a decent online presence, supply links. If your online presence is picking fights with strangers and moaning about your commute to 28 followers, don’t.

4) Introductory sentences: “I would like to submit my [TYPE] book TITLE for your consideration. The book is a [WORD COUNT] [SPECIFICS OF BOOK]. The manuscript is complete.” Thus:

I would like to submit my romantic novel* THE MAGPIE LORD for your consideration. This is a 50,000-word** gay paranormal romance set in the Victorian era***. The manuscript is complete. ****

* Say the type of book straight off because if the author is the kind of bargepole who submits poetry collections or histories of the Second World War to Harlequin, the editor would like to know that at once. (Do please check they accept your kind of book before you send the letter. You’d be amazed how many people don’t.)

** Word count matters as they may have restrictions. Plus, if it’s 2,500 words, or 2.5 million, that’s something the editor or agent would like to know now.

*** Brief specifics about the book here. A history of the Byzantine empire, a medical techno-thriller, just something to give a handle on your book. If you can make useful comparisons—the key word being useful—do so. “28 Days Later in space” or “a contemporary medical romance in the spirit of Betty Neels” is highly informative. Pro tip: no comparison to Harry Potter is ever useful, and particularly not claims of the MS being likely to sell at least as many copies.

**** Say the MS is complete if it is, because you’re wasting her time with a half written MSS. If it isn’t complete, stop reading this post and finish the damn thing. You get to sub back-of-an-envelope ideas later in your career. And don’t lie, because if the agent requests the full and it’s not written, you just blew your chance and marked yourself as a bargepole.

5) Paragraph about the book. This should be a top line summary, elevator pitch sort of thing. There’s no hard and fast rule, but if you try to write a really good blurb, that would do. (Because that’s so easy ahahaha. Blurb-writing tips here.) It should introduce the setting, MCs, plot and conflict. You don’t need to give the ending. And in the name of mercy keep it short.

London, 1880s. Lucien Vaudrey has returned from twenty highly enjoyable years of exile and disgrace in China to take up his unexpected inheritance of an earldom, but finds himself attacked by supernatural forces. He summons a magical law enforcer for help, but the man who arrives, Stephen Day, has every reason to want the entire Vaudrey family dead. Stephen and Lucien must now confront the past, and the unwanted attraction that ignites between them, while also trying to solve a series of magical murders—and avoid falling in love.

I did that in about 3mins, it could be better, but you see my point. Setting, characters, conflict, and since this is a romance, the romantic conflict too.

Don’t pull your hair out. Your good outcome here is that the editor skims it, doesn’t see any red flags, and reads on. Nobody is looking for authors with a genius at writing summary paragraphs. They just want to know they aren’t wasting their time in turning to the chapters.

I would, myself, stick to third person overview here, rather than trying to write in character. Even if the book’s in first person with a strong narrative voice, you’ll have to do a very good job to make that work for the editor in the 4-5 sentences of a pitch. I’m not sure any potential gain is worth the risk of failure. If you do try for an unusual voice, make sure it doesn’t get in the way of conveying what the book is about.

Optional bits:

4) Relevant bio if there is any. If there isn’t, just don’t. The editor doesn’t need to know you’re a keen amateur hockey player if it’s a book about cats. She might care if it’s a hockey romance; she needs to know if it’s a history of hockey through the ages. If you have nothing useful to say here it’s absolutely fine to skip (unless the guidelines demand it).

Absolutely do not include irrelevant professional experience. (“I have worked in local government for twenty years, here’s my BDSM erotica set in ancient China.”)

If you’ve got relevant previous publications (including self pub with sales figures), mention. If you have irrelevant previous publications mention super briefly. (“This is my first novel, although I have published a number of gardening titles with PUBLISHER.”) The agent can follow up if interested, and knows you can finish a text. But don’t fill the page with this.

Story time: I once saw a query for a sci-fi space opera that came from a man who worked for a famous dog show. I know he worked for the dog show because he said so in a paragraph that went, basically, “I have worked at [org] for years, and have a number of qualifications regarding dogs including writing several dog books. However, this is not a book about dogs and despite my qualifications in the dog world I don’t want to write a novel about dogs. I have lots and lots of interests that aren’t dogs. I’m not obsessed with dogs at all. Please judge my SFF novel on its own merits, and not dogs!” The very first line of the MS was, I swear to you, ‘“Come over here!” the captain barked’, and I couldn’t stop laughing for days.

5) Good endorsements. If you’ve had a published, Googleable writer or relevant professional give you a nice quote, use it by all means. Otherwise, no. Absolutely don’t say that your mum/writing group liked it, or that you read it to some children and they were really enthusiastic. (Particularly if it’s hardcore erotica.)

6) Previous publication of the MS. If you’ve had the whole thing available free on Wattpad or whatever you need to make that clear because it might trip contract clauses regarding prior publication. If you have a 200K following on Wattpad, now is also a good time to mention that. Don’t keep this a secret for fear the agent or editor wouldn’t like it. These are relationships based on trust: don’t start by lying.

***

Okay? It’s not hard, honestly. A few additional tips for not looking like a bargepole:

  • Don’t muck about with fonts and colours. It’s a professional communication.
  • People often try things to ‘make their submission stand out’ but the thing about standing out is, it’s what bargepoles do. I still shudder at the query letter I received purporting to be from a bunny rabbit, signed Mr Flopsy with a paw print, plus a bunny author photo. That ‘stands out’ in that it gets pinned on the corkboard in the office kitchen, but not otherwise.
  • If a snail mail query includes sweeties, author pics, fluffy gonks etc: bargepole. If there’s glitter or confetti in the envelope, I hope the sender treads on a slug in bare feet.

And a big one: This is not the place to rehearse your disillusionment with the publishing industry. I have seen all of the following:

  • The Sore Loser. “My MS has been rejected by Faber and Canongate, but seeing the meretricious crap they publish now, I’m honoured they didn’t think my book was for them.”
  • The Considerably Better Than You. “I am sorely disappointed by the tripe that passes for [genre] today and knew I could write a better book than any of the rubbish currently being published.” Bonus points if the author mentions the publisher’s own books as examples of said rubbish.
  • The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. “I am well aware the elitist clique that runs the publishing industry works on the basis of ‘who you know’ rather than giving anyone else a chance, and I dare say you won’t even bother to read this submission.” Correct, but not for the reason the author thought.
  • The Resentful. “My last book was left to sink without trace by X publisher, whose editorial and marketing left much to be desired. I trust you will do a better job.” Might well be true, but not this editor’s problem. Putting complaints that are nothing to do with the recipient in a query letter is not a good look.
  • The Really Resentful. “I have the following pending litigation against previous publishers…”

Keep it professional, short and relevant, proofread the living hell out of it, and you’ll be fine. Good luck!

____________________

KJ Charles did twenty years as an editor and has read more query letters than she would care to count; she is now a published author and doesn’t have to write them any more. Oh happy day.

KJ is currently offering two free development edits to British BAME romance authors in the support of more diverse British romance, so if you’re an aspiring author ready to query, click here and take me up on it.

6 replies
  1. Pam/Peejakers
    Pam/Peejakers says:

    Hahaha! I mean, this is all obviously excellent advice, but omg, your examples of what not to do are hilarious 😀 From the moment I got to “Come over here!”, the Captain barked, all I could do was cackle so hysterically I though I might need oxygen! And Mr. Flopsy’s paw print signature was a close second. Thanks for making my morning 😀

    Reply
  2. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    I’m a big believer in keeping it simple in a query letter. Trying to be cutesy, clever, or funny will probably just end up coming over as annoying. Then there’s trying too hard and allowing “perfecting” the query to turn into submission avoidance. I see that on writers forums sometimes. A month long thread on a query, with like ten different versions of it, being critiqued by people who are not agents or acquiring editors, and sometimes not even people who have ever sold a book. Often I’ll look at it and think, the first one looked fine. Second or third version at least. Just submit it!

    I’d also say, after you’ve sent out the query never look at it again, because you’ll instantly see a thousand things in it you hate. I broke that rule once and realised I’d called a character an office instead of an officer. 😣 Story still sold. 😁

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That or their problem just keeps expressing itself the same way. ie that they’re focused on what they want to say, not what the recipient needs to know. On the plus side, this has a pretty good correlation with being a terrible writer (not universal but up there) so you can feel pretty confident in binning those on sight.

      Reply

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