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

How to Write an Agent Query – What Is a Query Letter?

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

What is a query letter? 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

What is a query letter? 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 Query Letter – 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 Query Letter – 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 Query Letter – 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 Query Letter – Definition #8

What is a query letter?

In a word…


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 Query Letter – 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.


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.

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About Mark Malatesta

Photo of Mark Malatesta - Former Literary Agent 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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