“Hello Agent Person, I’ve written a rather fantastic book. Would you like to make me famous? MARVELLOUS.”

Aaaaah the Query. That innocuous little one-page cover letter that has holds the power of a thousand suns.

A query is a brief letter of introduction that you send out to literary agents, enticing them to read the rest of your submissions package (comprising a synopsis and sample chapters). In form, it’s pretty simple: a polite greeting, a brief summary of your story, a short biography of you as a writer, and a sincere sign-off.

“But, but, but, can’t I just send along my manuscript as it is and the agent will be swept away by my majestical prose and give me a huge book deal immediately?” I hypothetically hear you say.

Ahhhm, well, no. Wouldn’t that be nice? But no. Most lit agents are busy as heck. Some receive hundreds of enquiries each week. If they were to sit down and scan through 70k+ of words for each and every submission, they would never actually do any agenting.

For that reason, there happens to be a system in place to streamline the process. A query letter lets the agent know several things about you and your book, such as: the word count, the category/genre, who the main character is and an idea of where the plot is going. Yes, obviously the quality of your actual writing is a major factor in their decision to request more or reject your submission, but first they need to know whether you’ve sent them the kind of book they’re actually interested in representing.

A query isn’t a brief “hi, please read my book, kthanxbyeeee” kind of cover letter. Its purpose is to introduce the agent to your story in a succinct and engaging way, and hopefully make them want to read on to your synopsis and sample pages, which in turn will hopefully persuade them that they MUST sign you up as a client immediately and hopefully sell your book to publishers for an exorbitant amount of money.

As such, the query letter is the gatekeeper between you and the lit agent of your dreams. If you rush it, half-arse it, or commit one of the cardinal sins of query-writing, a prospective agent may never get past your cover letter to SEE your beautiful novelish words. Now, that’s not to say you can’t tweak the rules a little, but if you want to present yourself as professional, well-researched, and easy to work with, it’s in your best interests to stick to the guidelines and make a GREAT first impression with a polished query letter.

Every lit agent/agency in the WORLD will have their own preferences for submissions, which is why it’s VITALLY important to check the guidelines on their website or listings (the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is a good place to start for UK writers, ditto Writers’ Services for the US). Once you’ve noted down important info such as how long they like their synopses (1-3 pages is a decent ballpark), and what kind of genres they’re looking for (eg: don’t send your steampunk speculative fiction story to an agent who’s asked specifically for historical romance), then you can start to tailor your queries accordingly.

(For more on finding The Perfect Agent, check out our big mama manuscript submissions course, Publishing 101. And for synopsis help, well, funnily enough, check out The Synopsis course.)

A few notes on format:

As always, before you send a query out to an agent, CHECK THE GUIDELINES in case they have specific formatting requirements, but on a general a technical point, your query should be:

  • Approximately one page long (obviously a little difficult to judge when it’s in the body of an email, so if in doubt, type it out in a document first).
  • Single-spaced in block formatting (which means leaving a space between paragraphs), left justified, and written in a plain, easy-to-read font, usually around 12pt size.
  • Free from spelling and grammatical errors. Srsly. PROOFREAD YOUR SHIT. Look, typos happen, but we’d rather they didn’t, right? Get someone else to read over your query before you send it in case you’ve missed anything obvious despite staring at it for hours.
  • Devoid of any gimmicks, pictures, flashing images, gifs, random attachments or any other paraphernalia that really has NO business being in your query letter. JUST. NO.

Above all, make sure your query is concise, well-written, and straight to the point. Focus on the story. Focus on what makes your book so frickin’ readable. ‘Cause that’s what’ll make an agent want to find out more.

Right. Now you know what a query IS, let’s see what it’s made of…

Image of a printed manuscript wrapped in a red bow. In the top corner is the Writers' HQ logo and on the page it reads: Dear agent/publisher, please publish my super-excellent book. K thanks bye.

Want to be a better writer?

Or just to laugh at bum jokes? Either way, you need the famous Writers’ HQ newsletter. You know what to do – put your thing in the thing.