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What Is a Query Letter - How to Write an Agent Query

What Is A Literary Agent Query – How to Write a Query

Photo of Typewriter - Query Letter DefinitionWhat is a query letter? Query letters are “pitch letters” submitted by writers to literary agents, book publishers, and/or magazine editors. Scroll below to learn more. This article is part of a free 15-part tutorial about How to Write a Query Letter, written by Mark Malatesta, a former literary agent and former Marketing & Licensing Manager of a well-known book publisher.

In this free training guide you’ll discover everything you want know about query letters–and everything you wouldn’t know to ask. For example: What’s the best query length? What are the different book query formats? Where can you find the best query template, sample query, or successful query letter examples? What is a SASE? And where can you get query help? Let’s start by answering the question, “What is a query letter?”

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What Is a Query Letter? – 10 Things You Need to Know

Although the basic definition of a query is simple, writing one isn’t. That’s because there’s a lot of conflicting information about query letters: in books; on the Internet; and taught by publishing professionals at seminars, workshops, and writer events. To make matters worse, you need to follow different “rules” and use a different type of query letter template depending on what your query letter is about, and who you’re sending it to. For example, writing a query letter for a fiction book isn’t the same as writing a query letter for a nonfiction book or a magazine article.

That’s why I created this list of the ten things you need to know about query letters–so you can create a successful query. Even if you’ve already had some success writing queries, read this entire article. It has tips that have helped previously agented authors find new agents (and publishers). If my strategies can help authors like that improve their effectiveness and response rate, I’m pretty sure they can help you too.

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What Is a Query Letter – Definition #1

A “query” is a question or an inquiry, and a “letter” is a written or printed communication addressed to a person or organization; therefore, if you’re an author, a “query letter” is a written or printed communication addressed to a person or organization, asking a question about your book or book idea.

Usually, the question is something along the lines of “Do you like this and… will you publish it and pay me for the privilege?” If your query letter is successful, top literary agents will be intrigued and want to see more: book synopsis, book proposal, sample chapters, and/or your complete manuscript.

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What Is a Book Query – Definition #2

A query letter is your opportunity to sweep the most eligible literary agents in the world off their feet and get them fighting over the opportunity to represent you. 

I know that might be hard for you to imagine, especially if you’ve already gotten some (or a lot of) rejection letters. But instead of setting your sights too low, trying to get just one agent interested, you should try to get several agents interested. That way you can choose the agent who’s the best fit for you. But you can’t do that without an irresistible query letter, revealing why you and your book are “highly desirable.”

During my time as a literary agency owner and President, I read approximately 60,000 queries. I’ve read query letters that gave me goose bumps, made me gasp, and made me scream (in a good way). Yes, some query letters are really that good). However, most of them aren’t. Instead they’re boasting, begging, bribing, ranting, raving, wandering, dazed, hazed, and/or confused.

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What Is a Query Letter – Definition #3

A query letter is the only way to get a literary agent to read your completed or partial manuscript (and get published by a traditional publisher like Random House)–98% of the time.

No matter what.

Yes, even if you meet an agent at a writers’ conference, pitch your book, and the agent tells you that you should send the manuscript (or partial) to their office. Your manuscript (or partial) must be accompanied by a query letter; although, in this case, it would be more accurate to call it a “cover” letter.

In the good ol’ days, authors could submit their query letters directly to book publishers. Not anymore. Literary agents emerged in the late 1800s in the United Kingdom. Now they’re everywhere. There are thousands of them around the world, although most of them are in the United States. Think of literary agents as “gatekeepers” for all of the major- and many medium-sized publishers.

As an aside, everything you’ll ever want or need to know about literary agents can be found here at one of our other websites for authors called Literary Agent Undercover.

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What Is a Book Query – Definition #4

A query letter is, first and foremost, a “sales letter.”

In other words, the sole purpose of a query letter is to “sell” or “promote” your finished book (or book idea) to literary agents. That’s important to understand because most authors don’t know anything about writing sales letters.

Why would they?

Authors usually think of themselves as creative artists, entertainers, and/or teachers. Not salespeople. And that’s one of the reasons good authors often write bad query letters. Here’s another reason: If you’re an author, you’re used to writing things in long form. Like full-length books. You’re used to taking your time, moving at a leisurely pace, and sharing lots of details.

But that’s the complete opposite of a query letter. They are designed to be concise, focus on the big picture, and make someone want to buy something. So, don’t get upset if sitting down to write a query letter feels like getting in your car to drive to the dentist.

I’m going to help.

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What Is a Query Letter – Definition #5

A query letter is something that can be used to sell a book OR a book idea.

I mentioned this earlier, but didn’t explain it. Most authors know that you can pitch your completed book to literary agents and publishers, but you can also pitch your book idea. That is, if you’re writing a nonfiction book. In other words, if you’re trying to get a literary agent for your novel, it needs to be finished. If you’re trying to get a book agent for your self-help book, business book, or any other type of nonfiction book, you can do so without a finished manuscript. All you need is a book proposal and a few sample chapters.

Not sure what a book proposal is? Click here to learn more in our free guide to Getting a Literary Agent on our Literary Agent Undercover website.

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What Is a Book Query – Definition #6

What is a query letter?

Content and style.

Most authors focus exclusively (or too much) on the content of their query letters; style can be just as important. If you’re a humor writer, show-don’t-tell with a whimsical query letter. If you’re a romance writer, “flirt” with prospective book agents. Don’t be too business-like. Of course you should be professional. But there’s also nothing wrong with making an agent laugh out loud… or cry.

Agents make authors cry all the time.

With their rejection letters.

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What Is a Query Letter – Definition #7

What is a query letter?

A formula–to some extent.

Although every agent query should be slightly different, depending on the book genre (or category) and nature of the book, there are query rules, or guidelines, that should be followed.

Over the years I’ve identified more than a hundred different “ingredients” that you can add to your agent query. It isn’t possible to use all the ingredients in one pitch letter (that shouldn’t be your goal). But you should be aware of all the ingredients, so you can include the ones that will make your pitch the most “delicious.”

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What Is a Book Query – Definition #8

What is a query letter?

In a word…

Poetry.

No, your pitch letter shouldn’t rhyme; however, a well-crafted query letter is like a poem. A piece of art. It also has to communicate a lot of power in a small amount of space (a query can’t be more than one page–I’ll explain this later). That means you have to have sentences with multiple layers of meaning. For example, a single sentence in your pitch letter might identify your target market, show that you understand your market, and compare/contrast a similar competing title.

Whenever I’m writing a query letter for one of my coaching clients, I try to make as many sentences as possible communicate two or more things. It’s definitely not easy to do, however, when you manage to pull it off you get responses like this one from Laurie McLean with Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents. This following replay is part of a letter she sent me after I queried her about one of my former literary agency clients, who’d lost his publisher.

And I had no previous connection
or interaction with Ms. McLean.

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Query Letter Testimonial

Laurie McLean Literary Agent - What Is a Query Letter?“Dear Mark… Your query letter was, bar none, the absolute best I’ve ever received pitching an author’s work. Short and direct, yet packed with information. I’d be a fool not to beg you for a look… please mail it to my personal address so it won’t get mixed up with the hundreds of pieces of mail and packages we receive each week.”

Laurie McLean
Fuse Literary Agency
Formerly with Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents

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What Is a Query Letter – Definition #9

What is a query letter?

Something you should be submitting to multiple agents simultaneously–known as simultaneous submissions. Just don’t tell them I told you. As an author trying to get a literary agent, it could take you years to get an agent if you query them one at a time. As a literary agent trying to sell books, it could take years to get a publisher if you approach them one by one.

Agents hardly ever do it.

Neither should you.

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What Is a Book Query – Definition #10

Now some good news…

A successful query letter is easy to write if you know what you’re doing, and a bad query letter is usually easy to fix.

Over the past several years I’ve helped hundreds of authors (most of them previously unpublished) write successful query letters. They’ve gone on to get the attention of literary agents; and many of them have also gotten major publishing deals with top publishing houses like Penguin, Random House, and Thomas Nelson.

Who knows?

YOU might be next.

So…

Now that I’ve answered the question, “What is a query letter?”
click here for the next article in this series – an important
Literary Agent Query Letter Warning.

Yellow Query Letter Next Button

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Author Success Story: Nonfiction/Self-Help  
Author Picture

"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/Young Adult  
Author Picture

"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: Memoir  
Author Picture

"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: Eleven Fiction and Nonfiction Titles  
Author Picture

"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  
Author Picture

"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: Memoir/Christian  
Author Picture

"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)   
Author Success Story: Nonfiction/Narrative Nonfiction  
Author Picture

"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/Mystery/Thriller  
Author Picture

"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: Fiction  
Author Picture

"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: Nonfiction/Business  
Author Picture

"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)   

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.
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