Writing a Query Letter - How to Write an Agent Query

Literary Agent Query Letter WritingQuery Letter Writing – How to Write an Agent Query

Writing a query letter that stands out from the thousands of other queries read by literary agents every month isn’t easy, but it can be done. This article shows you how, and is part of a free 15-part training called How to Write an Irresistible Query Letter written by Mark Malatesta, a former book agent and former Marketing & Licensing Manager of a well-known book publisher.

This free training reveals everything you want and need to know about query letters. For example: you might be wondering what a query letter is and what the various query letter formats are; you might want to know the best query letter length or wonder what a successful sample query letter looks like; and you also might want to know what a SASE is or where you can get query letter help.

This article reveals a new way to
look at writing a query letter.

* * *

Writing a Query Letter – A New Approach
How to Think about Query Letters

In the previous section of this guide on writing a query letter, I told you why you have to be careful which query letter examples you model; in just a moment, I’m going to show you the best query letter template. But before I do that, you need to know what writing a query letter is really about.

Writing an effective query (or anything else) starts by knowing the purpose of what you’re writing. But what is the function of a query letter? If you read the first part of this article series called What Is a Query Letter? you already know that a query letter is a piece of correspondence (sent by email or postal mail) that’s designed to get top literary agents fighting over the opportunity to represent you and your book(s).

But…

HOW do you get the best literary agents interested in your ideas? What approach should you take in your query? What are the different things you should you say? How should you say them? How much should you say about everything? What order should you put everything in? And what should you NOT say?

* * *

Writing a Query Letter
It’s About Trust

Most authors think writing a query letter is about selling their books. But your goal when writing a query letter shouldn’t be getting an offer for agency representation–or a book contract from a publisher.

That’s putting the proverbial
cart before the horse.

Why?

No literary agent is going to offer you representation (and no publisher is going to write you a check), based on your query letter alone. In other words, your goal when writing a query letter should simply be: 1) Get your foot in the door; 2) Make agents curious to know more; and 3) Get agents to trust you.

Now, here’s how you do it…

* * *

Writing a Query Letter
The Point System

My unique approach to writing query letters is based on a simple, but powerful, idea… the fact that most authors are selling themselves short when writing a query letter. That’s because they’re using the outdated query letter template that’s been around since literary agents appeared in publishing in the 1800s.

And, every author is saying
virtually the same thing.

But times have changed–the publishing industry has evolved. That’s why I created the new and improved query letter template I’m about to show you. It’s a condensed version of what’s known in the publishing industry as a book proposal. My query letter template allows you to stand out from the crowd and communicate more value.

Before I show it to you…

Here’s a 30-second primer on book proposals
to help you understand how it works.

A book proposal is much more detailed than a query letter (usually ten or more pages). If you’re a nonfiction author, you need to write a query letter AND a book proposal to get a literary agent and a publisher (even if your book is already completed). If you’re a fiction author, you might be able to get a literary agent WITHOUT a book proposal (most fiction literary agents don’t require book proposals), but you STILL need to know how they work.

Book proposals typically
consist of four sections:

  1. Overview
  2. Competitive Titles
  3. Author Biography
  4. Marketing & Promotion

This is important to understand because the information that goes into a book proposal is the very same information that literary agents use to sell books to publishers; it’s the same information that publishers use to promote books to bookstores, readers, and the media.

So…

If you provide more of that information in your query letter (a more comprehensive pitch), you’ll be giving prospective literary agents everything they need to sell your book to publishers, and they’ll probably use a lot of what’s in your query letter to sell your book. If, on the other hand, all you do in your query letter is explain what your book is about and include a couple sentences about yourself, you’re only communicating some of your value.

Less than half.

My query letter template isn’t longer than a standard query letter, it just does more in the same amount of space. My query letter template has four main paragraphs. Each one respresents one of the four sections in a book proposal listed above.

Now, here’s the important part…

You can get up to 25 “trust points” for each paragraph,
for a total possible score of 100 points.

In other words, if all you do in your query letter is explain what your book is about, and include a short bio, the highest point score you can get is 50.

That’s not good.

* * *

Writing a Query Letter
Seeing and Selling Yourself

Writing a query letter isn’t just about seeing your books clearly and describing them effectively–it’s about seeing yourself clearly and selling yourself effectively.

If you’re uncomfortable talking about (or promoting)
yourself, I understand–you’re not the only one.

Think of it this way…

Literary agents and book publishers are like bankers and you (the author) are like a small business owner (writing is your business). When you’re writing a query letter, you’re basically asking book agents and publishers to invest in you (their time and money) as a “partner” to help your book become successful. In this context, talking about yourself isn’t bragging, it isn’t in poor taste, and it isn’t about ego.

It’s a necessary part of your business.

“Selling yourself” simply means you showing prospective investors that you’re a good investment. You need to prove that you’re a credible author. And you need to prove that you’re going to be a good promotional partner when your book is published. In other words, you need to demonstrate your ability and desire to help sell books.

Don’t worry, I’m going to show you
exactly how to do that in just a moment.

There are 125 different things you can say (or, in some cases, not say) when writing a query letter that will get literary agents to trust you–most authors are only aware of a few. By the way, this is the same idea/approach that I used when writing pitch letters as a literary agent, and it’s the same approach I use now when providing someone with a Query Letter Critique.

Now that you understand my approach to writing a query letter
let me show you my unique Query Letter Template.

Yellow Query Letter Next Button

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Author Success Story: Nonfiction/Business  
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"Not long after Mark helped me land a top literary agent, I got a call from my agent letting me know that I had three different publishing offers from well-known publishers: Amacom, Palgrave Macmillan, and McGraw-Hill who recently published my book in hardcover! It was a fantastic feeling and a huge smile came over my face. For a moment I felt like life was perfect and the angels were singing." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of the business book Customer Focused Process Innovation (McGraw-Hill)   
Author Success Story: Fiction  
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"Before I revised my query letter with Mark, I got no responses. When I sent out my new query, I got four requests for more material within 24 hours The support Mark provides is fantastic. His suggestions changed my original query significantly, but they also helped me see that I had something to offer. Now I have a top agent! Mark is smart and reliable and working with him has made all the difference." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of novels including The Wings That Fly Us Home (Penguin Random House / Ballantine Books)   
Author Success Story: Nonfiction/Self-Help  
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"Mark helped me get five different offers for representation from top literary agents. I signed with Stephanie Tade who got me a 6-figure book deal with Penguin Books, which published my book in hardcover! When Stephanie first contacted me, she was very excited and said, ‘I can’t get your book proposal out of my head. It’s brilliant – I mean, really, it’s fantastic. Editors should be salivating by the time they get to the chapter outline.’ Working with Mark was completely worth it." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of the self-help book Woman on Fire (Penguin Random House / Penguin Books)   
Author Success Story: Fiction  
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"It has been an awfully long and bloody road towards publication but I’m finally on my way. Hard work, struggle, disappointments, and perseverance are important. So is following the advice of publishing industry experts like Mark. He helped me get a top literary agent and now my novel, The Wrong Hand is being published by Penguin Books and their prestigious Michael Joseph imprint, which is ‘principally interested in publishing Top Ten Bestsellers’. It’s hard not to be excited." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of the novel The Wrong Hand (Penguin / Michael Joseph)   
Author Success Story: Memoir  
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"I got the number one agent on my wish list thanks to Mark. He’s done more than 100 deals in just two year and has a long list of accolades, including being talked about in the New York Times. Within 4 minutes of sending out my revised query letter, my literary agent called me on the phone. Less than 30 days later I had three major publishers making offers. And, a few days after that, I signed a deal with Random House. Mark’s query letter did that." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of the memoir Lights Out (Penguin Random House)   
Author Success Story: Nonfiction/Narrative Nonfiction  
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"Berkley Books recently published my book in hardcover after Mark helped me get multiple agents interested in my work. I was able to speak with literary agents from top agencies such as Janklow & Nesbit, Trident Media, Anderson Lit, and Folio. I signed with Don Fehr at Trident Media and a short time later I had a publishing contract! Having Mark on your side is incredibly valuable." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of the narrative nonfiction book Single Handed (Penguin Random House / Berkley Books)   
Author Success Story: Fiction/Young Adult  
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"When I got the phone call about my publishing offer with Harcourt, I was in my office with three other people. I slammed down the phone, ran into the secretary’s office, threw myself down on the floor and said, ‘I got a deal!’ They sat there and held my hand. I was speechless. I’ve never ever been that happy in my life. On my wedding day I wasn’t that happy! Getting married and having children are wonderful experiences, but I didn’t ‘work’ to get my children!" [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of many YA novels including The Body of Christopher Creed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)   
Author Success Story: Eleven Fiction and Nonfiction Titles  
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"Finding Mark has been both a treat and a treasure. I now have two different agents for my work, and a book deal with Sky Horse Publishing. I’ve served as Creative Director of the TIME Incorporated Magazine Group; Director of Time World News Service, a Founding Director of TIME-Life Films; Executive Producer for both the CBS and NBC Television Networks; and Producer/ Director: Movies of the Week: CBS Cinema Center Films and Universal MCA. You just can’t do it alone today as an author." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of eleven fiction and nonfiction books (Harper Collins and many others)   
Author Success Story: Fiction/Mystery/Thriller  
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"Ballantine Books published my first two novels in hardcover and paperback after Mark Malatesta helped create an auction and bidding war for my books, resulting in a six-figure offer. Mark is one of the rare and genuine good guys, but he also has incredible information (even his ideas have ideas). One of the most important keys to success as an author is good information and support." [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of the mystery thrillers 24/7 and Black Valley (Penguin Random House / Ballantine Books)   
Author Success Story: Memoir/Christian  
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"Before I decided to work with Mark, I submitted my book to literary agents but didn’t get any interest. After I revised my query letter and book proposal, I got several agencies interested and decided to sign with Fine Print Lit, a top literary agency in New York. They got publishers bidding against each other and I ended up signing a contract with Thomas Nelson (an imprint of Harper Collins) for what I’ve been told by several people is a very large advance. What cloud is higher than 9?" [Click here to see all Mark Malatesta reviews]

Author of the memoir The Unbreakable Boy (Harper Collins / Thomas Nelson)   

About Mark Malatesta

MARK MALATESTA is a former literary agent turned author coach. Mark now helps authors of all genres (fiction, nonfiction, and children's books) get top literary agents, publishers, and book deals through his company Literary Agent Undercover and The Bestselling Author. Mark's authors have gotten six-figure book deals, been on the NYT bestseller list, and published with houses such as Random House, Scholastic, and Thomas Nelson. Click here to learn more about Mark Malatesta and click here for Reviews of Mark Malatesta.