Sep 112012

Want to interest a literary agent in your book idea?

Often, agents want a query letter first. The query sells them on the book idea and introduces you. It’s your chance to make an indelible impression.

Queries have to be short. Here’s the formula for this three-paragraph letter:

Paragraph 1: You need an evocative opening that intrigues the agent enough to keep reading. It includes the book’s hook: a concise sentence meant to pique interest about why the book is needed now and how it’s different. Include the book’s working title and subtitle.

To create a connection, the paragraph should also include why you chose this agent, based on the agent’s website, books represented, or a reference from a colleague. (See this list at Publishers’ Marketplace that includes agents who specialize in cookbooks.)

Paragraph 2: Gives a mini synopsis that describes how the book is organized and any special features. Give specifics why it’s interesting and unique. Make your description read like compelling flap-jacket copy.

Paragraph 3: Explains why you are qualified to write the book, and why the agent should be interested. Mention your writing credentials, any awards, and your platform. Pick the criteria most relevant to the book.

At the end of the query, ask if you can send the book proposal.

Now, how do you increase your chances of a positive reply? Here are three:

1. You’ve written the book proposal first. I know, it’s so much easier to just send a query letter because it’s only one page long. But if the agent’s interested, she will ask for the book proposal, and you won’t have one. Besides, it’s so much easier to write the query when you’ve figured out the book first by writing a full proposal, which can be 50-70 pages long.

2. You sell yourself, not just the book idea. If you have a large blog audience, you’ve written for a big magazine or website, or you’ve taught cooking classes for years, put it all in your bio. Stick to details relevant to your book. Exude confidence. This is no time to be humble.

3. You send the query the way the agent wants it. Query letters have huge rejection rates. Don’t give the agent any reason to reject yours. Some agents want a snail mail letter, some just want the proposal, and some have a submission form on their websites. If they want an email, paste the query in the body of the email.

Whatever you do, address the agent by name, and make sure there are no typos.

When you’re ready, decide if you want to send one query at a time, or a few. Most agents don’t ask for an exclusive. Most agents say no. Let’s give them a reason to say yes.

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  18 Responses to “3 Keys to a Killer Query Letter”

  1. Very good tips and pointers, Dianne. I love this ” Exude confidence. This is no time to be humble.”

    And writing a book proposal before the query letter…well isn’t that just an ambitious little task! But you’re so right, you at least know what you want to say as you said, if the agent is interested, bam, you need to produce that proposal asap. But what if you write it, and they say, well I like 70% of your idea but not this part or that part, then you have to go back to the drawing board or at least fix 30% of it. Fun times :)

    • Averie, you are often the first one to comment on my posts. I appreciate it.

      Well then, you only have to change 30 percent of the book idea. That’s not so much, right? Assuming you agree and you want a relationship with that agent, of course.

  2. Great advice as always Dianne.
    I think writing query letters and book proposals
    are a great way to help outline the book you intend
    to write … So it will help move that writing project along too.
    Only problem I seem to have us that the book(s)
    never seem to stick to the plan and they foray
    off in a new direction! Go with the flow or stick to
    the plan?

    • That’s a good question. You need a concise enough idea for a book so that you can stick to the outline, I suppose. Try to keep other ideas separate. The more stuff you try to cram into one book, the bigger and more unfocused it gets.

  3. Last year I got a fantastic literary agent who was able to get me a really good contract – according to the advance amounts I’ve seen on this blog, I would say it would be a very, very good advance given I had never written a book before- so her commission was really worthwhile for the negotiation and work she did on my behalf.

    But before all that, I had to find her. I spent about three months sending out query e-mails, and filling out contact forms to agents. I got lots of rejection emails. Enough that I was pretty depressed about whether my book was a good idea, at all.

    So I went back to read my query email after seeing Diane’s post. It was pretty bold, colorful and had to grab the reader. You only get one chance, and they’ve been going through alot of emails. Here is the start of mine..

    “Enough with pressure cooker books teaching you how to make the same ‘ol brown runny stews, beans and soups!

    Previously labeled a fringe cooking method limited to upper-middle-aged women with a knitting habit, vegans and hippies looking for a faster way to boil beans or save the planet now used by TV Chef-testants and culinary greats, like……”

    I think I just insulted everyone reading this- including myself- but my point was to be BOLD, grab attention and clearly state the problem my book would solve.

    Then, I had a whole section about myself – which wasn’t about me at all. I didn’t mention I’m Italian, speak three languages and had an IT background. I even wrote very little about my website. Instead, I talked about the advantage the eventual publisher would have in working with me that they would not have in working with another writer..

    “I have written guest posts on pressure cooking for and and have share my recipes, techniques and photographs with several pressure cooker
    manufacturers who may be able to assist in the marketing of my eventual book.”

    But if your blog has lots of traffic, like lots and lots, then you should mention that, too.

    If the agent gets that far down your query, you can close the deal with a personal note. You don’t want it to seem like you’re just copying and pasting an email and spraying it all around. So I read her bio on one of those agent sites and saw the books she had published and concluded..

    “I noticed only one of your previous clients published a cookbook, so I hope you will find my proposal interesting enough to want to hear more”

    Just like writing anything else. Think about your audience. Give the agent the tools they will need to market you and your book and most importantly… don’t give up!!!



    • P.S. I should not that before I sent out my query letters I contacted the manufacturers I collaborate with and asked them if they had any interest in assisting in the sale and advertising of my eventual book. Many said yes. Now that I have a deal, a date and am working on a manuscript I got a commitment from one of the highest-selling pressure cooker manufacturers to add a flyer advertising the book in the box of every single pressure cooker sold in the U.S.

      So, look around at your contacts and collaborations, ask them for help and then don’t be afraid to flaunt them to the agent and publisher.

    • I remember corresponding with you over that period, Laura. It impresses me that you persevered in the face of all that rejection and came up with a funny intro that captured the new book idea. Thanks for telling your story and for the advice. Very helpful…and inspiring!

  4. It’s so hard to do the proposal letter first but probably the best way to go. Always love your posts, Dianne :-)

  5. Dianne, with all that you have taught me, your post has given me yet more info. Printing it to save and refer to as I go. Thank you!

  6. I am with Liz, here, Dianne – this post definitely goes into the working pile:) But, one of these days I should stop collecting the knowledge, tricks of the trade, tips and experiences, and start practicing what I learned:)
    Your words are always such an inspiration!

    • Yes, so true, Lana. Some of us are very good at preparing and practicing, and not so good at getting on with it, which is a lot scarier.

  7. You are so right about doing the proposal first. It not only helped with the query letter, but it has been a goldmine ever since. I’ve used bits of it for getting permission to reprint recipes, for asking people for blurbs, and for any number of public relation pieces. The secret to doing it for me was to get a copy of a successful proposal so I could get a feel for what one might sound like.
    Talking of goldmines, I read Will Write for Food on an airplane (to Istanbul) and I’ve gone back to my notes on it over and over! Thanks!

    • Wonderful, Judith. Yes, when I’m coaching I send 2 successful proposals so people can learn from them. Otherwise you feel like you’re operating in a vacuum.

      I’m curious about how you use it for p.r. pieces — not sure what you mean but intrigued.

      You read my book on a plane to Istanbul, eh? Lucky! (Not for reading by book, but Turkish food….ohhhh.)

  8. This is an extremely useful post as is your book on this topic. I spoke with an agent about one very specific idea I had and she requested that I write a concise, one-page proposal, basically the idea of the book in a nutshell. And she suggested that I write a chapter – an introductory chapter or sample chapter – before getting back to her or any other agent. As you and others have said, the rules are slightly different for first-time authors and previously-published authors, am I right?

    • Thanks Jamie. The answer is — it depends. Some first-time authors have written short proposals. Some previously-published authors who have not written a proposal before might have to write a full one. Some publishers who buy a second book from a publisher can require just a few pages.

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