Many of these tips have been adapted with permission from Amanda Woody. Querying can be very stressful, so please check out our tips on stress management as well.
Please contact one of our mentors listed on the bottom of this page if you want a free query letter edit after you read this article and do your best! We look forward to hearing from you and can also help recommend agents to query for your genre and book.
Unless guidelines say otherwise, use this: “Query: TITLE (Genre).”
Example: Query: LESBIAN WITH A SWORD (YA Fantasy)
You can also use “Last Name Query: TITLE.”
Example: Maranwe Query: WE SHOULDN’T EVEN BE HERE.
Dear vs. Hi: Dear is more formal, but Hi exudes a sense of familiarity and friendliness I’ve seen agents respond very well to.
Last Name or First Name: Unless they’re a very senior agent you’ve never spoken to before on Twitter or in person, use their first name. Most agents are friendly and this helps create an atmosphere that you know them and want to know them as a person.
Comma or Colon: Colons are more formal, but commas are friendlier. If you’re going “Dear Last Name,” use a comma. If you’re going “Hi First Name,” perhaps a colon is better unless you know the agent personally.
Use the agent’s name. Don’t just say “Dear Sir/Madam:” And whatever you do, don’t use the wrong name!
Include one or two sentences of personalization plus your category, genre, TITLE, and word count. Example: I saw on Manuscript Wishlist you’re seeking lesbians with swords, so I think you’d be a great fit for my 87,000-word YA Fantasy, LESBIAN WITH A SWORD. You can either mention your book is #ownvoices here, or at the end. Do not include too many genres. If it’s fantasy and paranormal and mystery, just say the age group (Adult or YA) or “YA Fantasy.”
To find personal statements to make about an agent, check out their website, their blog, Twitter, and MSWL for specific manuscript wishlists. You can Google the agent name and “MSWL” as well. Explain why this book fits what they’re looking for.
The Book Jacket (1-3 paragraphs)
Here, you want to write something catchy that focuses on the arc your main character(s) go through. Don’t focus on background details or meaningless exposition. Jump into the plot that makes your book stand out and focus on how the world impacts your character(s).
One good formula is: When MAIN CHARACTER discovers THIS, she must do THIS to stop it, or risks losing THIS. For example: When 17-year-old Alice discovers an ancient stolen sword, she must embark on a quest with her girlfriend to return it to its rightful owner—before it unleashes a curse that decimates her entire clan.
The next paragraph should extend the pitch and be about 150-200 words. This can also be more than one paragraph. Just think of good book jackets and what they include. For example: This is Alice, and why she’s compelling. This is her problem. This is what she’s going to do about it. Here are the obstacles threatening her journey. This is what might happen if she doesn’t succeed.
You can spoil more in a query letter than you would in a book jacket. If there’s a major plot twist halfway through the book that changes the nature of the book or highlights a character’s identity or sexuality you want to tell the agent about, go for it!
The Description (1 paragraph)
TITLE is a standalone novel (with series potential, if applicable), and is comparable to COMP TITLE 1 and COMP TITLE 2. Only use two comp titles.
Your comparison titles should be relevant and modern, but do not make both famous books that indicate you know little about the industry. You should pick books that have similar plots, themes, and voices. You’re telling the agent that fans of those books would like your book too. Whatever you do, don’t say your book “does it better.” You can push yourself up without putting others down.
Don’t focus on the themes, like “redemption arc” or “extended metaphor for something.” The agent should discover that by reading your book.
The Bio (1 paragraph)
This should be one to three sentences, unless you have coauthors. Then, it can be longer. Include your published works, English/writing degrees, background that’s relevant to the book, and your social media followers. It’s also okay to say you’re a debut author living in [state/country] and working in [profession].
Fonts and Signature
Close out with: “Thank you for your time. It would be an honor to work with you.” Or something like that. You can say “Sample pages are attached below” if they ask for pages.
Check out our post on email signatures here. Don’t include self-published books in your signature unless they did very, very well.
Use Times New Roman or the default email font. Nothing fancy or awkward. Use the same font throughout.
Attach the First X Pages.
These should go in manuscript format (double spaced, clean formatting with the chapter title/number at the start) after your signature. Paste it into the email unless the agent specifically asks for an attachment.
- Make your query about 300 words.
- Use beautiful writing and the same tone as your novel. Don’t send a funny query letter for a horror novel and don’t send a serious drama-focused letter for a humorous book.
- Focus more on the first chapter and your sample pages. Many agents will skip the query.
- The best query letter can’t sell a bad book, an unedited book, or a book about teenage vampires falling in love (a book oversaturated in the market or a book the market isn’t looking for).
- Your query letter isn’t perfect until you have a 25-40% read request rate. If you are getting a lot of read requests from just your query letter, but not when you have sample pages, maybe it’s the pages that are the problem. If you get a lot of read requests from the first pages, but no offers, it could be your voice, the market, or the editing. If you get read requests from partials, but no offers from the full, it’s probably plotting in the latter half of your book or the market.
- If your book is professionally edited, it’s your call on whether to mention it or not. Some agents see it as a negative, others see it as a positive, and some don’t care. Be aware that agents that advertise themselves as “editorial agents” will still take a pen to it.
- Don’t go beyond a page.
- Don’t use exaggerations or clichés like: “This will be a bestseller.” “You better not pass this up.” Poetry. Writing the query letter from your main character. Etc.
- Don’t be rude or entitled ever. Don’t insult agents or other books in the industry (i.e., “the rest suck and mine is the best.”)
- Don’t use rhetorical questions. Instead of “Will she solve the puzzle on time?” write, “Now, she must solve the puzzle on time, before THIS happens.”
- Don’t just talk about your main character making a choice. Every query letter does this, so change it to stand out from the crowd.
- Use more descriptions than names. No one needs to know the name of your city or too many characters. Describe it! Instead of “They travel to Sanctum” write, “The travel to a city teeming with hellish darkness.”
Here are examples of novel query letters that follows some of these rules, but not all, and is adapted for multiple coauthors. It’s not perfect, but it does the job (scoring multiple full read requests). Some things to change from this query include: a shorter bio, including comparison titles.
I was drawn to your wonderful literary agency and your passion for YA Contemporary. I believe this book is perfect for you because of your interest in underrepresented, unique voices.
Dev Kumar is a prodigy, so he’s pretty good at statistics. Probability of spring break at Disney World: 95%. Dating Viola: 10%. His sister, Sanju coming out as lesbian to their parents: less than 5%.
But pandemics do weird things to probabilities.
Overnight, Dev and his friends get quarantined in a racist town in Georgia, eight hundred miles from home. Now, Dev estimates his chances with Viola are up to 50% and Sanju’s 80% sure her parents will find out her secret. As spring break turns into a three-month nightmare, Viola fights for racial justice, making sure supplies make it to the black side of town, and Dev volunteers his genius for the CDC, desperate to discover a vaccine or cure.
But the most important probability is one Dev can’t even imagine: the 0% chance everyone stays alive.
WE SHOULDN’T EVEN BE HERE is an #ownvoices, 78K-word YA novel following a pandemic through the eyes of Indian, Black, and lesbian characters. It is coauthored by myself, my sister Janani, and my husband Nathan, based on our experiences with racism and pandemic response. Nathan is a lawyer who has worked in criminal justice, a recurrent theme in this book, and is currently working to help get ventilators to COVID-19 patients. Janani is a political science graduate of UC Berkeley, and I am a lawyer who has worked with the U.S. government in youth service. The three of us founded Dweebs Global, an international mentorship and COVID-19 response organization, helping people for free around the world.
I have over 300K active LinkedIn followers, have given many speeches including two TEDx talks, and am a columnist whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Times, and LinkedIn. Janani was President of her community college’s newspaper, and is a content editor for the Stimson Center. We also write frequently for Medium, where we’ve been featured on Gen, P.S. I Love You, Startup, and other major publications.
The first [x] pages are attached below. Thank you for your time and consideration. It would be an honor to work with you.
ISVARI MOHAN MARANWE
[Positions, Author Website, LinkedIn]
‘Untamed’ is a completed 100,000 word manuscript aimed at the dystopian market, for a mature young adult readership.
The plot focuses on what happens when a form of chemical modification takes over the world, and the conflict it causes between the Enhanced people and the Untamed, those who refuse to adapt to the new survival methods, in their day-to-day struggle for survival. Aimed at the young adult market, the story is told from the perspective of a seventeen year-old female Untamed human, who is on the run with her family from the Enhanced population.
As one of the last original Untamed humans left in the world, Seven’s life has always been controlled by tight rules; stay away from the Enhanced, don’t question your leader, and, most importantly, never switch sides, because once you’re Enhanced, there’s no going back. Even if you are now the perfect human being.
But after a disastrous raid on the Enhanced Ones’ resources, Seven soon finds herself questioning the very beliefs that she was raised on. And, as one of the most powerful Seers that the Untamed have ever known, she quickly discovers that she alone holds the key to the survival for one race.
Yet, Seven must choose wisely whose side she joins, for the War of Humanity is on its way, and Death never takes kindly to traitors.
Incorporating elements of fantasy and science fiction into a dystopian society, this novel centres around the themes of inequality, justice, and the notion of doing ‘the right thing’.
‘Untamed’ is the first book in a series of four novels, the other three of which I have completed outlines and rough drafts for. I am very excited to share this with you, and have attached a synopsis and the first three chapters of ‘Untamed’ for you to read, as your guidelines requested.
I currently have had seventeen short stories accepted for publication, both online, in eBook format, and included in paperback anthologies, raising money for charity.
I live on a farm in North Devon, United Kingdom, where I co-run a Shetland pony stud; other hobbies of mine include inline skating, blogging and art.
Thank you very much for your time.
[address and telephone number]
Included with the permission of Madeline Dyer.
Where to find more examples
There is a list of 23 query letters that worked in many different genres here.
If you want to go into a query vortex, you can read a lot of examples on this site, where an agent (Janet Reid) rips them apart. You can also send queries to her and she might edit them and feature them on her blog if they meet her standards.
And here’s an example that breaks all of the rules and is the single best query letter I’ve ever read. So if you want to throw this advice to wind, make sure it’s this good first.