Writing a query letter is one of the most daunting elements of a new writer's career. What do you say? How do you present your ideas in a way editors will want to read your work? As a book editor myself, and as a writer who has written several query letters, I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.
To make the process as clear and easy for you as possible, we'll start with what to do, move on to what not to do, and end with examples of both good and bad query letters. The positive example offered is for an article in a magazine, but it can be modified for book queries as well.
Read the publication!
Two editions are usually enough to give you a basic idea of the magazine's audience and the style of writing they prefer to publish, but reading more is better. Many publications have internet sites now, and some offer new writers a free copy (online or off) of the publication or may even give you a discount on past issues. An alternative to buying is visiting your library. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask the librarian—these people are trained to find even the most elusive published material.
Tell the editor why YOU are the one to write this article.
Did you just write a piece on "Cooking with Crackers?" Inform the editor of Penny Pinchers Magazine about your cooking expertise, your extensive cracker knowledge, and why their audience needs this vital information from you and nobody else.
Tell the editor what the article is about.
It sounds simple but you’d be surprised how vague people can be! For example, stating “I wrote an article about kids on a playground that I think your readers will really like,” is not enough information. What about the kids on the playground? Did you write about bullying? Maybe this piece is about how to stay safe on the jungle gym. Perhaps it’s to do with socialization, or latchkey kids who hang out at playgrounds until their parents get home. Be specific. This is better: “Jungle Gym Jimmy is a step-by-step guide that teaches children how to use playground equipment to increase their physical skills in safe yet fun-filled ways. Seven-year-old Jimmy serves as the ‘tour guide’ in this humorous look at fun and fitness, playground-style.” It tells the editor what’s in store, but doesn’t give away the whole thing. The idea is to hook the editor into wanting to read your article.
Find out what type of books they print.
It isn't enough to know the genre. They may state they publish sci-fi, but if you can, find out a few titles and get to the library. You may discover they publish mainstream science fiction, or instead, prefer a more artistic, avant-garde style. The romance genre is a good example as well. To name just a few, there are lines geared toward single parenting, time travel, old-fashioned values, the paranormal, and romantica (the term for romantic erotica). As with magazines, most book publishers have websites where you can get a feel for what each publisher specializes in printing.
Give a brief synopsis of the book.
Include a brief outline of what the book is about. It’s a good idea to include an exciting excerpt from the book as well. If the publisher has asked that you include a synopsis with the query letter, then forego the outline, include the excerpt, and state why this book should be published. Let them know how it’s different from others of its type. Strange as it may sound, editors want “the same, but different.” They look for a particular style, but they don’t want a tired old story with a different byline.
Take a proactive approach.
Editors love it when authors state what they intend to do to promote the book — especially non-fiction. Letting them know there is public interest ahead of time is a bonus. For example, stating something like, “The local western club has agreed to host a book launching for Cowboy Bob and the Great Train Robbery at their next annual convention, and three newspapers have agreed to write reviews. I also spoke to the National Wild West Historical Society and their president, Joe Bob, read the manuscript. He has offered to write a foreword, and asked that once I have a firm publication date, I get in touch with him so that we can arrange for a public reading and book signing.”
If you haven’t garnered public interest ahead of time, state what you intend to do upon acceptance. “I will be speaking to this person or that person. I’ll approach the public library and arrange for a book signing and reading,” et cetera.
For both books and magazines:
Put your contact information at the top of the letter.
Perhaps you're not sure if you should use the letterhead style as you would on a resume or if you should put your name at the top right. Either will be fine as long as the information is there; though I’ve found as an editor myself, I prefer the letterhead format. The letterhead style gives your query a cleaner look, and is more convenient because the information stands out. Some people like to design a “logo” of sorts. That isn’t necessary by any means, but you won’t lose marks for it either.
Include the date.
It seems minor but if you really want a response back in the time stated, this is important information for the editor to have.
Find out the editor's name.
Editors leave or change titles within the company more frequently than you may think. The most recent issue of a magazine may list Bob Brown as the non-fiction story editor, and although that may have been true for the last six months, that doesn't make it true today. Phone and ask! It's a short conversation, and there are enough long distance servers offering calls for mere pennies per minute. You (and the new editor) will be glad you did.
Give your writing credentials
This is the part of the letter that makes new writers nervous. Don’t panic though — you do have writing experience. Think back on everything you’ve done. Have you had anything published online? Have you written anything for others, even just as a favor (and possibly unpaid) for a friend? It is still writing. Do you belong to a writing group? If you really can’t think of anything at all, “skim professionally,” meaning you slide into the pitch on your article or book. Tell them you’ve been writing for ____ years and your most recent article or book is “_________” which is about ________, and explain how their readers will identify with _______.
Include your phone number or email address after your name at the bottom.
Even if you've included it at the top, this is still a good idea. If the publisher states responses are by email, add your email address. If they don't state as such, add your phone number as well as your email address — include area code and country code if necessary. For Canada and the U.S. the country code is 1.
Give pertinent information the editor can use.
State the genre, the potential audience, and word count.
Include a SASE.
Some writers don’t include the Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope. While there are a few writers who feel it’s a nominal cost the publisher can handle, they’re making a big mistake. If editors had to take time out to address and pay for every response, the cost would be astronomical. They spend thousands of dollars every year in mailing out catalogues and submission guidelines—they don’t need or want to spend that kind of money to say “No thank you.” No SASE often means no response.
If you’re sending to another country, you can use an international postage coupon for your reply but with the advent of the internet, it’s more common now to order stamps from that country. If you’re a U.S. resident sending a query to a Canadian publisher, find out how much it costs to mail a letter from Canada to the U.S. and visit Canada Post’s website to order your stamps.
State what enclosures are attached.
Although it doesn’t happen often, it is possible that your SASE, story, or outline could be separated from your letter. As long as you’ve added the “Enclosure” tag at the bottom of the letter, the editor will know to take another look on the desk for the missing item. It’s a simple addition:
Synopsis of “Three Years Later.”
Chapters 1 – 3 of “Three Years Later.”
Proofread your letter.
Put the same care into the letter that you (hopefully) put into the story or article. A poorly proofed letter doesn’t bode well with editors. They may still give you a chance if there’s a minor typo or two (though preferrably not in their name or the company name), but a letter filled with errors goes straight in the garbage.
Pay attention to their guidelines!
No, they are not all the same.
For magazines: some will ask you to send a cover letter and the entire article. Others will ask that you query only — without the article.
For books: some may ask that you query with ten pages, or query with three chapters.
For both: you may find they only accept email queries and will ask you to use postal mail for the manuscript (ms), or they want both by email, or both by post mail. If you aren’t sure, pick up the telephone and ask them to either send you their guidelines or tell you where you can access the information online. You may be lucky enough to reach a receptionist that will give you the information you need right over the phone.
If they state they do not accept previously published articles or stories, cross them off your list of potentials for the story you had published elsewhere.
If they state they do not accept simultaneous submissions, then send your article only to them and wait for their reply before you approach another publisher with that same article.
If they state they do accept simultaneous submissions, it is prudent to let them know you’ve submitted queries elsewhere so if they really want your article or book, they’ll know to move on it right away.
If they tell you they won't take unagented queries, then either find an agent, or cross that publisher off the list until you have representation.
If you didn't learn the editor's title, leave it out.
Don't refer to Kim Wright as Mr. Wright unless you know Kim is a man. Stick with what you know. "Dear Kim Wright" is a good intro in this case. If Penelope Prince is definitely a woman, unless you know her marital status, don’t include a title then either. Mrs. Prince may take offense to being referred to as Miss or Ms.
Don't tell them you're new to this.
They'll know soon enough and you stating it won't help your chances of success. The pitch is not the place to make announcements about “who you aren’t,” and “what you can’t.”
Never use friends or family as proof of your abilities.
It may be that you are the greatest writer of all time, but relying on the opinion of friends and family when you’re trying to break into the writing profession is a huge blunder. Never do it—EVER. Mom may love your writing, and all your friends might be telling you you’re crazy if you don’t publish your work, and they could be right — but there’s not an editor in the world who’ll take their word for it. Family and friends tend to be biased and usually don’t know enough about the industry to make accurate assessments.
Don’t give it all away.
Offer them enough information that they’ll want to read what you have written. In the case of a magazine query, if you tell them the whole thing right off the bat, they may not see a point in reading the article itself. For books, you need to be clever in your synopsis or chapter outline. Tell them the “what,” not the “how.” For example, it’s good to state something like this:
Chapter Four – When Dylan finds out that the young pilot is Mark, the son he hasn’t seen in twenty years, he panics and puts the entire crew in peril. They are forced to make a landing on a deserted island, and while many of them survive, several do not. Dylan blames Mark, who is still unaware of Dylan’s identity. Mark can’t understand why Dylan is behaving so strangely toward him, or why the older man is sabotaging everyone’s rescue efforts.
That gives a great deal of information but doesn’t tell the editor how Dylan found out about Mark, what Dylan did to cause problems, why he’s blaming Mark, or how Dylan is behaving. They’ll have to read the manuscript to find out!
You want the editor to get an idea of your personality, but do so in a professional manner. This is an example of a professional sell:
“I’ve been a social worker for ten years and have worked extensively with families in crisis. The article, Finding Small Comforts in a Big World, focuses on the work I’ve done in family counselling. The families that were kind enough to share their stories in this article are dear to my heart, and I want their voices to be heard.” That tells a little about your article, your ethics, and the kind of person you are.
Don’t try anything like the following:
“Your readers are going to LOVE Finding Small Comforts in a Big World. I’m the reigning authority in social work geared to families in crisis. I just know with the extensive experience I have in the field, your readers will be begging for more articles from me. I’m a kind, loving, generous person and have bent over backwards to help the families whose stories I shared in this article. I could not have done it without them! They all really look up to me, and I know your readers will feel the same way. This article is an absolute must-read for professionals in social work, and for families in crisis.”
Don’t use exclamation marks, bold, or caps.
These are tools of an amateur. If you feel you must make an exclamatory statement, use one exclamation mark, not several. Bold is fine if used sparingly, and caps should be avoided entirely, except for the acronym ‘SASE.’ Bold fonts, all capitals, and loads of exclamation marks are fine in letters to friends — they aren’t judging your writing skills the way editors will.
Don’t query publishers you don’t know.
This means, if you haven’t done at least a little research into the company, don’t waste your time or theirs. Stating, “I’m not really familiar with your magazine, but I know you’re looking for short romance stories and so I thought, . . .” You thought wrong. Even if it turns out your story would be ideal for their publication, they’ll never know it because they won’t read your ms. Editors’ in-boxes are usually full. Why should they care about your work when you obviously don’t care about theirs?
Don’t make up a relationship with the editor.
If a friend had something published through a particular publisher and you ask for the editor’s name, that doesn’t equal an endorsement from your friend — unless the friend specifically stated, “You should talk to Bob Brown.” In that case, your friend would have (or should have) told the editor about you. It is okay to say, “I got your name from Mary DoGood and I would like to offer my story for your consideration.” Don’t say “Mary DoGood told me you might be interested in seeing my story.” You could end up with a rejection from the editor, and lose a friend in the process.
Don’t expect a phone call to replace a SASE.
Some writers feel that a telephone call would make things easier and state, “I’ll call you the first week of June to discuss the possibility of publishing my story.” It’s doubtful the editor will even take your call. If they’re interested in publishing your work, they’ll get in touch with you. Saving yourself postage on a SASE by asking them to call you with their decision is also unacceptable. A publishing firm may call to tell you they would like to see your article or manuscript, but more likely, they will indicate this in the returned SASE. They won't use the telephone for rejection of a query. Usually, the phone calls don't begin until the publisher has made the decision to publish your work.
Don’t pester the editor.
If they say they respond in two to three months, believe them. If they do send you a response before the stated deadline, good for you — that’s a bonus. If not, give it at least two weeks past the deadline before you call and ask about it. They may have gotten busier than expected and are behind on the hundreds of queries they’ve received.
Don’t jump the gun!
An editor may call or send back your SASE, asking to see the entire manuscript. That does not mean they will publish it. It means they accepted your offer to let them see your work, and they are interested in reading your ms to find out if you’ve written something they can use. When you send the ms, include a cover letter, thanking the editor for their interest, and be sure to also include either a SASE (if you’ve given them a disposable copy), or enough postage to return the entire ms, though sending a disposable copy is better. You may be getting back a dog-eared, marked copy that won’t be reusable. Some editors may ask you to send a disc rather than a hard copy. In either case, include the SASE or sufficient postage for a parcel.
A BAD Letter:
Keep in mind, this is an exaggeration using several negative elements. Note the author information and date are missing, as is the enclosure tag at the end, and it wasn’t proof-read for spelling or grammatical errors.
Kid Talk Press
1212 Some Street
Somewhere, the World, postal code
I am writing this query letter because I believe you may be interested in publishing my article called “Jungle Gym Jimmy”. It’s a really funny article geared towards kids and the funniest thing of all is that it’s actually based on my little brother, Jimmy!!! The kid is hillarious yet his crazy antics actually teach kids about safety on the playground.
First, Jimmy goes up on the jungle gym—barefoot! Of course, the hot metal burned his foot, he fell off, and broke his ankle!!! Of course, the lesson in that one is ALWAYS WEAR SHOES ON PLAYGROUND EQUIPMENT. Next, he’s hanging upside down on the monky bars by his legs and he just up and lets go!!! The poor kid ended up with seventeen stitches in his head, and his arm in a cast. Lesson—DON’T LET GO and HAVE A SPOTTER!
I haven’t read your magazine for a few years since I’m not a kid anymore, but I remember it was always really good. My friend, Lisa Pearson just had an article published by you and she said I should go for it. If you publish my article, I’ll be sure to get a subscription for Jimmy. He’s really excited about me getting this published—in fact my hole family is really really happy about it. They all loved it and I just know your readers will to. I’ve got a knack for comedy and kids will be laughing their heads off when they read this.
I’ve included the article with the letter, and will give you a call in two weeks to talk about when you’d like to publish it and to discuss the contract.
A GOOD Letter:
Note how the letter does not begin with "I'm writing this letter because . . .." It was left out for two reasons: 1)It is redundant. Of course you are writing the letter--and for a reason. 2) It gets old and you want to keep your letter fresh.
1111 My Street
My Town, My World xxxxx
Kid Talk Press
1212 Some Street
Somewhere, the World, postal code
Attention: Bobby Brune
Dear Bobby Brune:
Children learn best when they’re having fun. Jungle Gym Jimmy is an article for parents and children that teaches playground safety and shows how simply playing can promote good health and fitness. The lessons are told through the comical voice of the “tour guide” on the playground, seven-year-old Jimmy. Through Jimmy’s antics, children learn how to use the equipment safely and how to get the most fun out of a day at the playground.
As a Kid Talk subscriber for the last seven years (for the kids, I swear), I am very familiar with your publication, and feel this article would be a positive addition to the “I Can Do It” section of the magazine. The article is 2, 114 words, and has been divided into categories in a way that holds children’s interest. Being a mother of four children and with our home as a meeting place for most of the neighborhood, I’ve had the opportunity to test and verify that the fun and easy “exercises” offered here are not only effective but are loads of fun for the kids.
I’ve been writing children’s stories and articles for several years, and have had many of my stories featured in Kids Know Best, a small newspaper that the Cinder Elementary School publishes each month. I’m also a founding member of the “Right On Baby” editorial group which publishes a monthly e-zine for parents with newborns, and I’m a contributing editor to “Write Now,” an online site teaching creative writing.
Thank you for your time,
Article, Jungle Gym Jimmy