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.