5 Tips for an Irresistible Query Letter

 Books
Dec 012010
 

A writer asked if she could pay me to write her query letter. The answer was no. She needs to present her own writing to an editor or agent, not mine.

Query letters are an art form, but once you know the rules, you can succeed. Here are five tips:

1. Only send a query when you’ve written a full proposal. Yes of course, it’s easier to write a one-page letter. But if agents or editors like your book idea, they’ll ask for the full proposal. Then where will you be?

2. Get a referral. Literary agents like word-of-mouth recommendations. If you can say immediately that a friend or client recommended them, they will perk up and keep reading. Get referrals from other writers, writing teachers and booksellers. Work your groups, including IACP, Baker’s Dozen, and Slow Food, to find a connection.

3. Say why you’re approaching them. No one likes a form letter, so do your homework. Tell superstar agent Esther Newberg, for example, you chose her because you adore Ina Garten’s cookbooks (Good luck with that! ). Tell literary agent Stacey Glick your book on salt-preserving would be a good fit because the firm represented The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, a book that’s similar in spirit.

4. Make it short and sweet, and don’t forget the food. Get in and get out in three paragraphs. Grab their attention in the lead paragraph (hook), describe the book in the second paragraph (mini-synopsis), describe yourself and why you’re qualified to write the book in the third paragraph (biography). Most of all, since you’re writing a food book, make the reader salivate. You wouldn’t believe how often people forget to write about the food.

5. Sell, sell, sell, but be realistic. A query letter is no time to say how you’ve always wanted to write this book, or to deliver your condensed life story. Read book jackets to get a sense of the appropriate language. And do not — ever– say your book will be a bestseller or that you plan to appear on Oprah.

For actual examples of successful query letters, see this blog post on the Guide to Literary Agents.

Have you struggled with a query letter or do you have a question? While I can’t write yours for you, write to me here and I’ll do my best to answer.

  21 Responses to “5 Tips for an Irresistible Query Letter”

  1. Good advice (although I have written other people’s queries, in agency and out).

    My favorite line from reading submitted query letters–and you’d be shocked how often this was used–was: “Wouldn’t you want to represent/publish the book that is going to be more popular than the bible?”

    Um, yeah. Good luck with that!

    • Thanks. So you have written queries for others, Tara. Were you also ghosting or editing the book for them? In that case, it makes sense. Do you still do so and do you disagree with me that it’s misrepresentative? Would love to get your take.

  2. It is with eyes tired from staying up late relishing your book that I leave this comment. I simply have to type a note of THANKS for all of the guidance you offer food writers. I bought the first edition of your book when I was first falling in love with food writing. Now, I’m two blogs deep and years into a handful of freelance gigs, and I have picked up the new edition for fresh insight. Again, thank you for your giving spirit. Cheers!

    • Thank you so much, Jenious (if that is your name, sorry if not), and thanks for putting my blog on your bartending blogroll. I can’t believe you maintain three blogs.

  3. These are extremely helpful tips. How wonderful of you to share this with your readers.

  4. One might also use spell check on one’s letter, especially for, you know, an Irresistible Headline. :-)

    • One might, definitely. Thank you. Something I didn’t mention in the tips is to spell the name of the person you’re addressing correctly.

  5. I have some questions. Let’s talk about tip number 3. Does it matter if your proposed book is too close to a book that agent has already sold? Or is that important for publishers and not so important for agents? And how close is too close anyway? Would time be a factor in this decision?

    • It might matter, yes. If the book is complementary, that’s better than competitive. Publishers don’t want to do a book that’s extremely close to one they’ve already published either.

  6. Very solid advice- And very inspiring, too! I always get choked up when it comes to “making the first move,” so your helpful prompting makes me feel like it is much more possible to dive back in and seek out another book deal.

    But really, Oprah? Whoever delivers that line has clearly never been in publishing before!

    • Thanks Hannah. There are a million more things to say, but sometimes people like to read a short post.

      People write unrealistic things in proposals all the time, particularly in the marketing section. It’s easy to “plan” where you will promote your book, but anyone can plan. It’s much harder to talk to the gatekeepers, like bookstore owners, conference organizers, etc. to see if they are interested.

  7. Excellent post! And great advice, esp the part about making ‘em salivate.

    But I would amend #1 to” be prepared to deliver a proposal quickly.” I meet too many writers who have a great book idea but get hung up on the proposal. I always advise to crank that 1 pager out, and get an agent or editor interested. Surely that will motivate you to finish the proposal!

    That said, you should be able to visualize what will go into that proposal, and expect to turn it around in a couple of weeks…before the agent or editor forgets why they were interested!

    • Thank you, Kara. I’m not sure about the one-pager first. An experienced writer like yourself can crank out a proposal quickly, but most writers can’t. It’s not as much fun as writing the book because it’s a marketing exercise. A lot of writers take six months or more to get a solid draft.

      I’ve also found in teaching classes on book proposals that many students have not thought through the idea or their qualifications, and once they discover how much time it will take them, they give up! I guess that’s where the 97 percent failure rate comes in. Only the most dogged/talented/delusional writers persevere.

  8. I’ve devoured the chapter in your book about this as well as doing outside research. But didn’t you say in your book that putting together a good, solid, professional query should take months? I think putting together the entire book idea first would help anyone focus on what they should put forward in their letter. I have a friend who just had her first cookbook published and I think she told me that this step – query & proposal – took her about a year.

    Another great and thoughtful (for us!) post.

    • It’s the proposal that takes months. Once you have that written, the query letter is a snap. By then you know exactly what you want to write and why you’re qualified to do so. Absolutely right, Jamie.

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  10. but the whole readon why I want to write a book is because I want to appear on Oprah! just kidding. This post was great. Exactly what I needed.

    • You’d better hurry, Damaris. Not much time left. I hope there’s a new talk show host who does as much for book sales.

  11. Great advice, Dianne! All points applicable (tight and neat) to just about any query…I say as I get ready to propose my first novel after years in non-fiction. Cheers!

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