In this post I will show you how to write a query letter that will ensure that your book’s narrative, genre and place in the market is clearly understood. It will allow you to write a query letter that will give your book the best possible chance of receiving a fair assessment from potential agents and publishers.
The mistake that many writers make, when writing a query letter, is to forget that being an agent is less about art and more about money. A writer’s instinct is to try to convince potential agents and publishers of the quality of their book’s writing and plot. However, this is a huge mistake. When an agent is first assessing a book they are more interested in the book’s genre and the potential market size, then they are in character development and plot twists. If a writer is to produce a successful query letter they must forget about art and start to see their book as a product.
The Four Steps To Writing A Successful Query Letter.
The aim of the query letter is to demonstrate to an agent or publisher that:
- 1. You understand the marketplace,
- 2. Your book fits into their current list,
- 3. Your book will sell enough copies to make it worthwhile printing it in the first place,
- 4. You, the author, can support and promote your book.
In order to ensure you address all these key points, here’s a paragraph-by-paragraph outline that you should follow:
Paragraph 1: The aim of the opening paragraph is to hook the agent/publisher, spark some interest in your book and explain to them rapidly what your book is about. All in one paragraph!
The opening paragraph is split into two sections. The first is the elevator pitch, which consists of a couple of lines that capture the essence of the book. This is a concise and targeted summary of the book in just a couple of sentences.
What’s an elevator pitch?
The concept is borrowed from the business world. The idea is that an elevator pitch is a brief two minute presentation that can be given to a potential investor during an elevator ride.
The best way to think of an elevator pitch (because it is one) is the strap line of a film or that concise blurb you get on the back of a book.
The five element approach.
There are a couple of ways to construct an elevator pitch, but this post focusses on a method developed from Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake concept for writing a novel.
A novel’s plot can be split into five elements :
- Character: Who’s the main character?
- Situation: What is the situation that is forcing the main character to take action?
- Goal: What is the main character’s aim?
- Conflict: What is stopping the character from achieving their goal?
- Disaster: What is the pinnacle of the story, the moment at which the character’s goal may be lost for ever?
The first step is to write out the answers for all of the questions above. This will give you a tight outline of your book’s plot. From this you can mould it down to a two sentence elevator pitch.
Here’s the elevator pitch for the story of The Three Little Pigs :
- Character: Three little pigs.
- Situation: Left home and need to make their own way in the world.
- Goal: Build three new houses.
- Conflict: Big bad wolf will huff and puff and kill the pigs.
- Disaster: Two pigs are killed and third needs to escape.
From the above I get:
Three little pigs venture out into the world, looking to make a new home. However, vicious serial killer, the Big Bag Wolf, is on the prowl and after a terrible killing spree can the last little pig, who is left with just a pile of bricks, escape?
From this I cut down to:
With his brothers already devoured by a serial killer known only as The Big Bad Wolf, the third pig, fights for his life with just a pile of bricks between him and certain death…
You can find out even more about summarising your book in less than 10 words.
The second part of the opening paragraph is a brief summary of your book. This is not a synopsis just a very brief taster of what your book is about. At this stage you are simply showing the agent/publisher the type of book you have written and giving them a chance to see if it will fit into their current list. Here is an example for the classic fairy tale, The Three Little Pigs:
This coming of age fairy tale, sees three little pigs leaving home to build a new life. Yet faced with the problems of building regulations and a vicious serial killer known as The Big Bad Wolf, each pig must find their own solution!
Paragraph 2: The aim of the second paragraph is to present your book as a viable product. Having established your book’s theme and content, you must now demonstrate to the agent/publisher that you understand the market and have a realistic commercial proposition.
This paragraph should include the following:
- The book’s genre,
- The book’s word count,
- An indication of the market with three representative titles,
- Notes of any images, illustrations or unusual requirements,
- An indication of if the book is written, and if not, when it will be finished.
The representative titles are important and should not be missed. The best way to decide on these is to think what readers of your book may also read. The examples will give the publisher/agent a good indication of whether your book is the kind of product they can publish/sell. It will also re-enforce your genre positioning.
A List A Book Genres.
Fiction Genre List
- Action and Adventure,
- Chick Lit,
- Commercial Fiction,
- Family Saga,
- Dark Fantasy (probably still a major sub-genre!)
- Gay and Lesbian,
- General Fiction,
- Graphic Novels,
- Historical Fiction,
- Literary Fiction,
- Military and Espionage,
- Offbeat or Quirky,
- Picture Books,
- Religious and Inspirational,
- Science Fiction,
- Short Story Collections,
- Thrillers and Suspense,
- Women’s Fiction,
- Young Adult.
Non-Fiction Genre List
- Art & Photography,
- Biography & Memoirs,
- Business & Finance,
- Celebrity & Pop Culture,
- Music, Film & Entertainment,
- Cultural/Social Issues,
- Current Affairs & Politics,
- Food & Lifestyle,
- Gay & Lesbian,
- General Non-Fiction,
- History & Military,
- Home Decorating & Design,
- How To,
- Humour & Gift Books,
- Medical, Health & Fitness,
- Nature & Ecology,
- Relationship & Dating,
- Religion & Spirituality,
- Science & Technology,
- True Adventure & True Crime,
- Women’s Issues.
Paragraph 3: This is a loose outline of your book’s plot – just remember to keep it brief. Do include the key characters, the problem they face and the point of conflict. But do not expand this to a full blown synopsis. Short and sweet is the key here.
This builds on the first paragraph and will drive home your book’s narrative and give the agent/publisher a better feel for your story.
If we carry on the The Three Little Pigs story we get:
Set in the fairy tale land of medieval Europe, this tale sees three pigs leaving home to make their way in the world. However, their coming-of-age is overshadowed by the presence of the serial killer known as The Big Bad Wolf. The first pig opts to build a house of straw, but it offers little protection from the Wolf. The second pig tries sticks, but with the same results and he ends up as the Wolf’s second victim. The third pig develops a plan that involves a brick house, a chimney and a pot of boiling water – but will it be enough?
Paragraph 4: This is about you as a writer. In the modern world of internet driven marketing the writer is increasingly becoming an important part of the process. Include a brief biography, containing any relevant information such as previously published titles. I would also suggest that you add information regarding your web presence.
I absolutely want to know about you. I love pithy bios because it tells me a bit about the person behind the words.
Before we move on it is important to mention that the following information MUST be included in the query letter: your name, your address, any website details, your email address and your home and mobile numbers.
It is a common myth that book proposals should be a one page query letter and one page synopsis. It can be OK to write an extended query letter (in some circumstances). Here’s a list of topics that might be included:
- Marketing ideas: If you have a strong web presence, or if you have a solid vision for the marketing and promotion of your book then this can be included. However, simply saying, ‘I will do ten book signings,’ is not the kind of thing that will get anyone excited. This said, making it clear to the publisher/agent that you firstly, understand that marketing is part of the writer’s job, and secondly that you as a writer are prepared to get your hands dirty is always a positive. This is also where you should include any unique media contacts you may possess.
- A book series: Another situation that may lead to an expanded book proposal is if you are pitching for a series of books. In this case it may be appropriate for you to include a one page synopsis for each title, plus an expanded description of your series in the query letter. However, I would not included this expanded section unless more than one book has already been written. If the other books in the series are just ideas, then include just a couple of lines explaining the potential to expand into a series.
The Next Step.
If you were to do nothing else I would plead with you to ensure that you clearly define the genre of your book in your query letter. If you are unsure of the genre, then make it your mission to work it out today.
BubbleCow provide a free course to help you write your book proposal — go here to sign up for free.
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