Publishing Advice: The Dreaded Query Letter

For all the writers out there, hoping one day to become a published author, you know what I’m talking about when I say the “dreaded query letter.” And, for those of you who haven’t researched the publication process, I’m hoping this post will ease some of your anxiety about where to look, who to trust, and everything you need to know about the querying process.

Disclaimer: I have almost no patience and decided to self-publish my books. It was the best decision I ever made. I am an Amazon international bestselling romance author, and I don’t regret a thing. But…I plan to revisit traditional publishing at some point.

Let’s start with the basics…

What is a Query Letter?

If you want to go the traditional publishing route, you will need a literary agent, and to find one, you must write the most amazing pitch you’ve ever written in your entire life. The dreaded query letter is your first introduction to an agent, which means you need to write an off-the-charts letter to hold an agent’s attention. A lot of agents only ask for a query letter, and if you’re lucky, some will ask for a 5-10 page sample of your writing. This is your one and only shot at enticing an agent to read your work. Make it count.

The process is different for fiction, non-fiction, and picture books, and I’m only going to discuss fiction because that’s what I’ve spent the most time researching. Keep in mind the proposals required for non-fiction are not the same as a query letter and require you to give information related to education or experience to substantiate your knowledge of the subject. For picture books, agents usually require you to submit the artwork at the same time as the proposal. This is all I’ll say about non-fiction and picture books, as the rest of this post will focus on how to submit your fiction manuscript to an agent.

What to Include in a Query Letter

  • Sender’s Address (top right hand corner): your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address
  • Recipient’s Address (align left, same as a normal business letter): Include the name of the literary agent, agency name, and agency address. Makes sure you spell the agency name and agent’s name correctly because this will be an automatic red flag.
  • Date (align right)
  • Salutation: This is important. Do not address your query letters as Dear Agent or send out a generic letter that could apply to any agent. Use “Dear Ms. Smith:Do not use a comma. You want to use a colon. This is a business letter, so you should treat it as such.
  • First Paragraph: Every agent has different standards for what they expect to see in each paragraph of the query letter, but most literary guides recommend you use this as an introduction to your genre, the name of your novel, total word count, etc.
  • Second Paragraph: This is where you insert a “brief” synopsis, no more than ten sentences in length. Make sure your query is no longer than one page of a Word document, and the page count does not go up just because you’re sending it via e-mail. Stick to one page if you want an agent to read it and make sure your synopsis is straight to the point.
  • Third Paragraph: If you have any writing credits or have won any contests or awards, you can insert them here. For first time authors, do not mention that an editor proofed your manuscript. Do not mention you’re a first-time author since that is already implied by the fact you do not have any writing credits. Do not mention that your past times include reading. That is a given since you’re a writer. What writer doesn’t read? Don’t mention that your family and friends raved about your story or that you have the most amazing novel on the planet. That will only guarantee your letter finds its way to the shredder. Do not put a list of demands in your query.
  • Closing: Make sure you say something like ‘Thank you for your time’ before the closing. And for the closing, you want to use “Sincerely.” Remember, keep it professional. What you would write to your neighbor is not the same as what you’d send to a co-worker.

I know these things seem like common sense, but I’ve done enough research on agent’s blogs to know this happens all the time.

My experiences with the query process

Before I queried an agent, I was realistic about the process and expected to get rejections to my query letters. Why? Because no one is perfect, and every writer and agent are not a good fit. The agent may not like the story I’m trying to sell, I caught them on the wrong day, and a whole list of other reasons why they’re not interested in my work.

I recently published an article about how to handle query letter rejection if you want to see how I dealt with my first rejection. You can find that post HERE.

My Advice: Hire A Good Editor

A few years ago, I hired Chuck Sambuchino, the Query Letter Guru, to whip my query into shape. Chuck is a freelance editor and published author, and you can find him at I paid around $165 for two rounds of query letter edits, and it was worth every penny. My letter is completely different now from the version I worked on with Chuck, but what I did learn is what works and what doesn’t work when writing a query letter.

If your synopsis is too vague or leaves the reader asking themselves too many questions, chances are your query is not good enough. Mentioning proper nouns from your fantasy novel when the reader doesn’t know what say an Orc is will leave them wondering what your story is about.

You want the agent to get a feel for what they’re about to dive into, and I learned all of this from Chuck. The first thirty query letters I wrote were complete garbage until I found a good editor. Even after that it still took me a while to see what was working in the letters I had originally dismissed. Chuck has helped tons of people land an agent with their query letters, routinely speaks at writer’s conferences, writes a fantastic blog, and is really easy to work with. I highly recommend him, if you’re interested in hiring an editor.

I was planning to include the query letter I wrote for my first manuscript here, but this post is getting long, and I want to hear from you first. I’ll share things I’ve learned, samples of my writing, and anything that will help prepare you for the road ahead, just let me know in the comments below if you’re interested in this information.

What are your experiences with researching or querying literary agents? Have you written a manuscript? Do you have an idea you want to turn into a novel? Do you write short stories or poems? Whatever your experience level or background, I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time…



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Jillian Quinn is the author of the Amazon international bestselling Face-Off hockey series as well as other sexy, sporty romances. She loves sports, bad boys, dirty talkers, strong females, and books with plenty of heat, all of which you will find in her books. As a lover of all things bookish, she has a serious book hoarding problem and runs a blog in her free time. When she’s not reading, writing, or blogging, she’s obsessively fangirling over hockey players and can be found wherever she can catch the next hockey game.