Step 2: The Cover / Query Letter that sells books


New writers often don’t realise the importance of a great query letter. For the editors and agents, the query letter is the first thing they see and they use that to judge whether they want to see more of you or not. So don’t rush it. Take your time, write different versions. Treat it the same as your manuscript, refuse to send it out unless you believe it will sell!

What is a cover / query letter

The query letter is your audition for the part of writer. It’s proof that you can write. It is a one page document in which you introduce yourself and your manuscript.

Why you need a cover / query letter

The main purpose is to make the reader want to read your synopsis. That’s it. Get them to turn the page.

Most editors prefer a query letter with synopsis before reading a manuscript. However, do not query if (1) the topic is a hype that might be over in two weeks time or (2) you’re sending in short filler pieces.

The format

Format this letter like a business letter, address it to the editor in question and provide your contact information. ‘To who it may concern’ or ‘Dear agent/editor’ are NOT options!

  • One page.
  • Fully typed. No handwriting.
  • Clean print, using black ink. No colours! Use a new ink cartridge, avoid fading.
  • Basic white or off-white paper – stain free!
  • A4 or legal sized paper.
  • Plain font. (Courier 12, Geneva 12, Times New Roman 12, Garamond 12)
  • Comfortable font size.
  • One-inch margins all around.
  • Correct spelling and grammar is essential!
  • Invest in personalized stationary with your contact details tucked away in the header or footer.
  • If possible, use a laser printer rather than an inkjet printer. The trained eye sees the difference.
  • Single spaced.
  • The book title is often put in ALL CAPS or italicized.

The content

First paragraph: Are you worth my time?

Hook them in your opening line.

One strategy is to open your query letter with your story’s original idea. This gets the reader’s attention, plus it ensures the idea is already in their head when they look through the rest of the submission.

Introduce the manuscript by providing the title, the word count and one-sentence hook (your angle) describing the story. The hook shows the originality, provides confidence that the story will not disappoint and prompts him to read the story. He can then use it to convince others within the firm. Tell them the style of the story and your suggested length for it and what you expect to get paid (e,g,m 30-100 per 1000 words). Inform the editor of the sample and the synopsis sent along with this letter.

Do not open with…

‘Enclosed you will find… You’re telling them something they already know, which means you’re already boring them.

‘I’ve written my first novel and I’d like you to take a look at it.’ Again, they already know you want them to look at it, or you wouldn’t be sending it to them. Odds are, they also know you’re new to the field when they didn’t recognise your name. Besides, opening by declaring your lack of experience is never a strong move.

I feel confident that you’ll love it once you read it. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t walk into a book store and wait till you’ve read the book before you decide if you’re willing to pay for it. The same goes for all other readers, including agents and publishers. You have to hook them from the start and keep them hooked!

Second paragraph: Who are you?

Introduce yourself, explain the purpose of your communication. Tell him what sort of writer you are, inform him of achievements such as won contests and publications. This establishes your credit as an author. Quote any contacts you might have that are relevant.

“What should I put in the bio section of my query letter if I haven’t been published before?”

If you haven’t been published before, that’s OK. A first-time best selling author would be equally welcome anyway and there is a thrill in discovering the next big author. Be forth-coming, admit to the lack of publication and/or education in literature and inform him that this is your first work. There is no way to hide any lack of credentials. Agents will see right through the fancy language that attempts to make up for it. If you have nothing useful to say, consider skipping that section entirely, demonstrating you mastered word economy at least.

Do you have a special perspective on the topic?

What special background do you have that would make them want to see what you have done? Your background and personal experience can provide alternative qualifications. Someone with experience in the Special Forces would have a deeper perspective on a war story than you’re average Joe.

Third paragraph: How do we get in touch?

Thank him for his time and attention. Ask for the editor’s feedback and inform him of the self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) he can use to communicate back to you.

What not to include

Who you think will buy the book or how it should be marketed.

There are several reasons why it’s often better to leave that part out. First, the agents and editors are the real experts on marketing. Two, you’re turning them off if you’re wrong in your assessment.

Hall, C. (1999) Writing features & interviews: how to build a career as a freelance journalist.
Lukeman, N (2005) How to write a great query letter: insider tips & techniques for success.

Lukeman, N. (2010) Ask a literary agent.
Mayer, B. (2011) The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit: A Guide to Writing Novels and Getting Published.
Morrell, D. (2008) The Successful Novelist
Scalzi, J. (2007) You’re not fooling anyone when you take your laptop to a coffee shop