Query letters matter massively. A typical literary agent in New York or London will see approximately 2000 manuscripts a year, and may take on just 1-2 new authors. Of the 2000 manuscripts submitted, the majority – let’s say at least 1750 – will be rejected very quickly, because of errors in the query letter or synopsis. So here’s a checklist for how to write the perfect query letter.
1) No obvious errors
No howlers, no spelling mistakes, no saying it’s when you mean its, no calling your book a fiction novel when it’s just a novel. (All novels are fiction; saying ‘fiction novel’ makes you sound like an idiot.) But you’re smart enough not to make those basic errors, so I won’t say any more on that topic.
2) No bad sentences
A slightly different issue. Plenty of query letters don’t have errors as such, but they still give off plentiful indicators that the writer is a little clumsy in expressing themselves. Here’s what I mean:
This novel, which is the first one I have written, is called The Adventures of Crazy Jane and I would say it falls into the genre of fantasy, or maybe even chick-lit.
That’s a hideous sentence, absolutely awful. No literary agent will read any further than that – but the sentence doesn’t actually have any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in it. So it’s not just about avoiding howlers. It’s also about writing well.
Keep your letter to a page. It doesn’t need to be longer than that. 2 pages absolute tops.
4) Introduce the book
I generally recommend a sentence or two at the start of the letter which summarises the key data: the title, the genre, the word count, the rough thrust of the story.
Then a longer paragraph about the book. You don’t need to summarise the plot – the synopsis will do that – but you do need to say what the book is about. That could be about setting, about theme, about period. Whatever matters most.
5) Don’t say much about yourself
No one cares about you – they care about the book. So a sentence or two is fine. Keep it short. If you’ve got a proper publishing track record, then say so – but it doesn’t matter if you don’t. If you’ve just published articles in the parish magazine, then shut up about it. No one cares. The one exception to this rule: if you are writing subject-led non-fiction and you are an acknowledged expert on the topic, then make that clear.
6) Don’t get cute
Most jokes don’t work. Lavish grovelling is pointless. ‘I will call you in two weeks to discuss': you’ve gotta be kidding. This is a business letter. So keep it businesslike. In the US, you can be a bit more pushy, a bit more sales-y. In the UK, it’s better to play it straight.
7) Remember what the query letter is there to do
All the letter is actually there to do is encourage the agent to read the opening page of the manuscript. If that page looks good, the agent will read the first chapter. If he/she likes the first chapter, then they’ll read on.
But the query letter is just the very start. No one will make up their mind from a query letter. Your letter just has to get the agent interested enough in the project to make a start on the manuscript itself. It’s not hard to write a decent query letter. It’s VERY hard to write a decent manuscript. For more advice on securing a literary agent (and for sample query letters) then see the advice here.