How to write a query letter: 12 essential steps.
You need to write a query letter to begin the process of selling your non-fiction book to a publisher, but before you write one, you have to know what kind of non-fiction book you’re writing.
There are many types of non-fiction books, ranging from memoirs to inspirational guides to books on financial success. In general, they can be divided into two main categories: those that have a story arc and those that do not. Or, to put it another way, they are either narrative non-fiction or informational books.
Memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies have a story arc, as do certain history books and investigative books that take you through a story unfolding over the course of weeks, years, or decades.
Informational books do not have such an arc. They are designed to present information, and include health and art books, car repair manuals, business books, and travel guides. Although they may contain case histories and other small stories, they do not have a story arc that builds and leads to a satisfactory conclusion or follow characters through time, challenge, and change.
In this article, we’ll look at how to write a query letter for informational books. In other blogs, we’ll talk about query letters for narrative non-fiction books such as memoirs.
What’s a query letter?
A query letter is your first contact with a literary agent. It’s a request for representation—a brief introduction to you and your book that (hopefully) piques the agent’s interest and makes her or him want to learn more. Essentially, the query letter poses this question to the agent: Do you like my book idea enough to want to read my book proposal?
While the query letter for narrative non-fiction books emphasizes the book’s story and characters, the query for informational books highlights the content—what the readers will learn and perhaps how they can improve their lives.
How to Write a Query Letter for A Non-Fiction Book
- First and foremost: Keep it short and sweet!
A query letter that’s a page to a page and a half is sufficient. Any longer and you risk boring the agent and showing that you can’t describe your book and its key selling points concisely. Focus on what is most interesting and saleable about your book and yourself.
The query is essentially a smaller version of your book proposal’s summary or overview. It touches upon the main points, which will be presented in the proposal in greater detail.
As literary agent Andrea Brown says,“A query letter should be like a skirt. Long enough to cover everything, but short enough to be exciting.”
- Experiment with the elements of your query letter
There is no right or wrong approach to writing a query letter, other than you want to catch the agent’s attention with your very first words and keep her or him reading.
The elements listed below don’t have to be presented in a certain order—except for the salutation and closing, which should be first and last.
Some query letters begin with a surprising or controversial statement. Some lead with the book’s hook, while others start with the author’s impressive background. Feel free to shift them around to make your query as powerful as possible.
- Begin with the proper salutation
Make sure you address your query to a specific agent at a specific literary agency and that you spell his or her name properly. If you are copying and pasting the letter to several agents, make sure you get the right name on each submission. The query should always open with the salutation, as in “Dear Ms. Smith” or “Dear John White.”
This may seem obvious, but almost every agent can tell you of letters they’ve received addressed to someone else, to the agency as a whole, or “To Whom It May Concern.”
- Give the book’s hook
The book’s hook, also known as the handle or elevator pitch, is an intriguing statement that answers three important questions: “Why?” “Who cares?” and “What will it do for me?”
For example, “Medical doctors are just as bad at picking cost-effective treatments as regular folks are, which accounts for an annual $20 billion in excess medical costs—and even worse, the loss of seven to nine thousand lives.”
This tells us that something is terribly wrong with our health system, which can be followed by an introduction to your book: “My book, Doctors As Techs: A Radical Solution to Our National Health Crisis, proposes reshaping the U.S. health system to allow physicians to do what they do best—treat patients—by relieving them of the responsibility of deciding which treatments will be used.”
Here’s another example: “We are wowed by university students who graduate at the top of their class, yet matriculating in the middle is actually the best strategy for personal and financial success. My book, Jogging Towards the C-Suite: An Argument In Favor of Landing Higher By Aiming Lower, shows how attempting to be ‘the best’ destroys the lives of all but the very few who claw their way to the top—and those few are so damaged that they have very little chance of enjoying satisfaction or ever finding happiness.”
- State your purpose and give the basic details
Be sure to tell the agent what you’re looking for, as in “I’m seeking representation…” This may seem obvious to you, but agents receive letters covering a variety of topics, so it’s helpful to let them know your intentions right off the bat.
Then, clearly spell out the basic book information: title, subtitle (if any), word count, genre, and the target readership (who will buy your book and why). For example, “I’m writing to seek representation for my 65,000-word book titled The Financially Strapped Millennial’s Retirement Manual, a guide to financial success designed for millennials who are struggling to pay their rent yet want to retire comfortably at a relatively young age.”
- Tell the agent why you picked her or him
When you write your query letter, be sure to explain why you sent it to this particular agent.
It may be because the agent represents books similar to yours or mentioned liking your type of book in a Twitter feed. You might say, “I believe you will like this book because your manuscript wish list said…” or “You mentioned wanting to see queries for this genre in your presentation at…”
You may also mention that you met this agent at a writer’s conference—if you actually did—or that you’re contacting her or him based on a referral from an established author or editor at a publishing house, if you really have such a referral.
If appropriate, you can add intriguing details such as the fact that your previous book(s) sold well or you’ve won awards in your field—as long as these claims are true.
- Identify the target audience
Briefly explain who your book is written for.
Be specific; don’t say it’s for “everyone who drives a car” or “everyone who thinks that Wall Street is harming Main Street.” Identify your target audience precisely, showing the agent that you know who you’re writing for and have geared your book for them. Demonstrate that you’ve thought this idea through carefully.
For example, you might note that your book is designed for the X-million millennials who are living paycheck to paycheck or gig to gig, are still living with their parents after the age of 30, and are in fields where they have little or no chance of ever receiving health or retirement benefits.
For a book on alternative treatments for arthritis, for example, you might say that your target audience consists of the X-million people with osteoarthritis who live with significant pain despite being treated with standard medications and surgery and are eager to learn about different approaches.
- Show them your platform
Your author platform consists of all the things that make you known to and popular with your target audience. This includes all the relevant radio and television shows you’ve been on, speeches you’ve given, appearances you’ve made, the strength of your social media engagement, and more.
Work the highlights of your author platform into your query letter, saving the details for your book proposal. You can learn more by reading “How to Build Your Author Platform – 8 Key Steps.”
- Explain how you will help sell the book
In days past, large publishing houses would send their authors on books tours, flying them from city to city for interviews, media appearances, and book signings.
But unless you’re a VIP, that doesn’t happen anymore. Instead, the publishers are looking for authors who can promote their books on their own, with the publishers augmenting these efforts.
That’s why it’s important that you briefly explain what you will do to promote and sell your book. This includes upcoming shows or lectures you’ve already booked, articles by or about you that are scheduled to appear at about the time your book is released, VIPs who will endorse your book, as well as groups that will support it, and anything else that shows how you’ll help your book sell a lot of copies.
- Tell the agent who you are
Briefly mention who you are and why you’re qualified to write this book. For example, “I’m a professor at Harvard University…” or “As a financial advisor with 30 years of experience” or “Having raised two children with disabilities…” or “I’ve built three homes from scratch, solely with the tools available to 12th century craftsmen…”
If relevant, you can also touch upon your education, professional publications, inventions, the awards you’ve received, and anything else that qualifies you to write this book.
- Give them a taste of your writing style
Although the query should be written in a professional manner, use this opportunity to demonstrate your writing style. Don’t just say that your book will be funny or dramatic, show a bit of humor or drama in the query.
And be sure to show how much you care about your book’s subject—doing so let’s the agent know that you’ll hang in there through the often difficult writing and sales processes. As literary agent Alec Shane says, “Let the passion for your book shine through in your pitch.”
Just don’t go overboard. Remember, the query is a business letter.
- Close properly
End your letter by thanking the agent for reading your query.
Don’t hint that you expect to hear back within a certain period of time, say that you’re flying into town and want to meet her, talk about your dreams of landing on the bestseller list, mention that you have 16 more ideas, or anything else.
Just thank the agent and sign off.
Make your pitch perfect!
As your first contact with a prospective agent, your query letter is your first opportunity to wow her or him with your idea, writing skills, knowledge of the publishing industry and target market, and ability to help sell your book.
Good query letters can be difficult to write, because you have to pack a lot of information into a little bit of space, while making it all interesting and readable. If you don’t grab the agent immediately, you’ll receive a polite letter of “no thanks”—or nothing at all. So take your time when constructing this very important document.
As New York Times bestselling author Nicholas Sparks says, “Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.”
Finally, a few don’ts
Agents receive lots of queries, and it doesn’t take much for them to toss one into the reject pile. Sometimes they’ll do it for reasons that have nothing to do with you and your idea, but other times it will be because of something they’ve seen in your query.
You can’t control the former, but you can strive to avoid the latter by making sure your pitch is professionally written and delivered. Don’t give an agent an excuse to reject your idea because you:
- brag about how wonderful and successful your book will be
- belittle yourself or your book
- apologize for not having impressive credentials or previous publications to list
- apologize for taking the agent’s time
- disparage other books—the agent reading your query may have represented one of them!
- misrepresent anything about yourself or your book
- talk about how long you’ve been working on the book
- mention that your book has been rejected by numerous other agents
- say that all of your friends think your idea is wonderful
- dress up the query with fancy colors or fonts or use unconventional formatting
- turn in a query with typos—even one
- don’t have your book proposal polished and ready to go when the agent requests it
- fail to follow the agency submission guidelines
- ramble on—and on, and on
IF YOU’D LIKE HELP WRITING YOUR BOOK…
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